Harvard University is a real character in this novel, as a place rich in tradition, as a maker of men and as a source of continuity and reassurance ahead of America’s entry into the Second World War. However, while conventional patriarchal platitudes about the place are aired and to an extent even endorsed, they are also subjected to an ironic, quizzical, even wary gaze by author Timothy Fuller (1914-1971). A native of Newton, Mass, like his amateur sleuth Edmund ‘Jupiter’ Jones, the author was a Harvard man through and through. The result is a book that Janus-like has some fun at the expense of a venerable American seat of learning but which in its problematic finale seems unwilling to break free of its hold.
The following review is offered as part of Kerrie’s 2012 Alphabet of Crime community meme over at her Mysteries in Paradise blog, which has reached the letter R. It is also eligible under the guidelines of Bev’s 2012 Mystery Readers Challenge, specifically the 8 books I have pledged to read with an educational setting. I also offer it as part of the Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her Pattinase blog.
“… don’t forget it was a Harvard man who was murdered. That’ll give it tone anyway.”
It is said that Fuller’s debut novel Harvard has a Homicide (1936) was not only written in a couple of months as a pastime when he got bored in his junior year but that it was also the first modern detective story to be serialised in Atlantic Monthly. It quickly sold some 9,000 copies and, in an interview with The Harvard Crimson newspaper in 1937 he admitted that it generated “… more money than I ever expected to make . . . . and the future looks good”, even speculating about a move to Hollywood. Jones himself remains at Harvard after graduation, first as an Instructor, and then as Assistant Professor, of Fine Arts. Later he goes to war and eventually retires to the country. In Reunion with Murder, his third case, it is the day before Jupiter is due to wed Betty, his fiancée of 8 years. However their plans develop a hitch when their best man Ed Rice becomes the prime suspect in the murder of a fellow Harvard alumnus at a 10-year reunion. Jupiter and Betty now have 24 hours to solve the case, get Ed back for the ceremony, get married and live happily ever after. Early promise and youthful hopes that may not all have been fulfilled are very much at the heart of this story.
“It must be dull to have sense. Let’s try to steer clear of it.”
The murdered body of Sherman North is found on the seventh tee of the Syonsett Golf Club, where up until shortly before midnight he had been enjoying a 10-year reunion with Ed and other Harvard alumni. North is found with a bump on the head and shot through the heart, near to his car where two clues are found: a broken match and a personalised charm for a bracelet. In addition a set of foot prints from high heel shoes are found leading up to near the body, and then simply stop, without any sign of return. A number of North’s ex-classmates, none of whom had seen him in 10 years, provide rather weak alibis for their movements at the time of the murder while Rice wakes up with his knuckles bruised and blood on his shirt. Time for Jupiter to step in. In a rather nice touch, Fuller introduces the various ex-students via the brief biographies they have all supplied for they have supplied themselves for the reunion class book. Some of the boys have gone into business, other traveled to Europe and the War while others have even gone into acting. They are all seemingly bright and forthcoming and yet are clearly holding something back. No one seems to have particularly disliked North though they all admit to having liked his wife Ann when they knew her as students. Fuller himself makes fun of the fact that in detective novels the Q and A sessions with suspects can be a little dull so he glosses over most of them. Instead what we remember are the scenes with Rice, Jupiter and Betty, which are full of amusing banter and even occasional naughtiness (the boys say “No carp” to indicate seriousness, a simple transposition of letters away from a coarser phrase that one would have been surprised to have seen in a traditional mystery circa 1941). Indeed, there is plenty of humour, though I did find myself smiling also at a rather unintentional juxtaposition when one of the detectives is introduced as one ‘Inspector Morse’ (no first name provided either)! There is a second shooting, from the same gun that killed North and before long Jupiter has his answer. But what will he do with his knowledge?
“Why don’t you let us in on your secret?”
“I would, but, dammit, I’ve got to save something for the last chapter, haven’t I?”
The book does take a strange path on the way to its conclusion. In the latter chapters concerns over the war in Europe and the seeming unimportance of one killing in the face of millions ultimately guide Jupiter to make some very strange and questionable decisions. John Dickson Carr in many of his books lets culprits get away scott free, more interested in justice than law and order – and Jupiter does something similar here. Literally wearing a superman costume, selected by the men for their tenth anniversary parade, he rounds up the suspects and exposes the murderer. Fuller, by the choice of superhero costume, descends into the slightly ridiculous but also alludes lightly to the Übermensch philosophy that dominated Nazi ideology. While a Nietzschean critique is not forthcoming (one can imagine what ss van Dine would have made of this), ultimately Jupiter decides that, in times of War (or near to it), it is alright for one Harvard man to decide to kill another in what he thinks is a good cause, even though we are actually not told what that is in any great detail. North was basically behaving badly and so punishment was delivered. This outrageous conclusion is more than a little objectionable, something Fuller knew all too well, and yet this is how he ends the investigation before heading Jupiter and Betty off to their wedding. Throughout Jupiter has been operating as a rogue agent, competing with the DA and the police and instinctively aiming to protect North’s widow, who he feels is somehow tied with the death even though she is seemingly innocent of any direct wrongdoing. Is it sheer chivalry, an attraction to a damsel in distress brought on by nerves about his own upcoming nuptials, or something else? We don’t really find out and it does weaken the novel unfortunately though there are elements to the murder and its solution that are marked by ingenuity and originality that are certainly noteworthy (but not without spoilers).
The Jupiter Jones series
- Harvard has a Homicide (1936)
- Three-thirds of a Ghost (1941)
- Reunion with Murder (1941)
- This is Murder Mr. Jones (1943)
- Keep Cool, Mr Jones (1950)
For the most part this is a light and entertaining mystery, brimming with collegial high spirits. To a certain extent it reminded me of the even frothier mysteries of Edmund Crispin, another precocious mystery writer. Granted, Crispin didn’t actually start publishing until several years later but it is possible that Fuller was influenced, as Crispin certainly was, by the books that Michael Innes and Nicholas Blake were putting out in the 30s. Either way, it is a bit of a shame that there were only 5 Jupiter Jones cases. But Fuller, like Crispin, temperamentally belonged to the Golden, inter-war age, which may help explain why he stopped publishing mysteries not long after the end of the war. Maybe things just got too serious.
Great fun and well worth seeking out – my thanks to that avid reader Bev of the My Reader’s Block site who recommended this author to me.