Ayn Rand, author of The Fountainhead, was a fan of mysteries, praising the likes of Mickey Spillane and Fredric Brown, and even dabbled in the genre. Night of January 16th was a popular courtroom drama where the audience decided the outcome; Think Twice was not produced in her lifetime and she claimed that it showed why she did not write any more whodunits as she could only ever really reach one ending. Let’s see …
I offer this review as my final contribution to Bev’s 2013 Vintage Mystery Challenge in the ’Country House Criminals’ category and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.
“Tomorrow, at twelve o’clock noon, I shall give this invention to mankind”
As this is a fairly obscure work, with not much info about it available online (even, gasp, on Wikipedia), I thought I’d better start off with a synopsis. A four-act play set over a July 4th weekend in Connecticut, it all takes place in the luxuriously appointed living room of a new country estate built by plutocrat, benefactor and all-round do-gooder philanthropist, Walter Breckenridge. It is a surprise gift for his wife Helen, so various friends and family members have been invited to be there when she arrives. As part of his general altruism, he collects the flotsam and jetsam of society to help them make something better of themselves. His protegees and pet projects include headstrong theatre star Adrienne Knowland (a Katharine Hepburn type); Tony Goddard, a medical student with musical ambitions; even Breckenridge’s wheelchair-bound son Billy was in fact adopted from Harvey Fleming, an engineer lost to drink who could no longer care for him; and Serge Sookin, a fawning Russian emigree who nobody likes. Breckenridge is turning 50 and concerned above all about securing his place for posterity. But he is not universally loved and recently survived a shooting incident, so has purchased a gun. Breckenridge’s largesse has in fact stifled all those who receive it, his ‘goodness’ proving to be much more of a burden than a bonus, even to his wife and adopted son, who hates the pity that is heaped upon him:
“You don’t know how important it is – not to need anybody”
Breckenridge is the owner of a major new power source that can capture cosmic rays and convert them into energy and has decided to gift this to the world (Many of Rand’s works have some SF elements). This puts him into conflict with Steve Inglewood, the man who actually invented the device and is his junior partner and who wants it to be exploited commercially. This conflict is exacerbated when Steve is discovered by Breckenridge in a clinch with his wife. Later that night, while the new machine is used to set off fireworks by remote control, Breckenridge is shot and all evidence points to Steve – the gun has his prints on it (but he was seen handling it earlier on) and a cigarette butt from his brand is found next to the body. Luckily Greg Hastings, the local DA, is too smart to fall for this – so who is responsible? Well, it turns out that everyone really hated the man and all are incredibly pleased that he is dead. Eventually a foreign agent is found to be among their midst, various declarations of love are made, and an arrest is made – but has the guilty party actually been found?
“Is there anyone here who does not want to be the murderer?”
Rand was the rabidly anti-Communist Russian-born founder of ‘Objectivism’, a philosophy that celebrates egotism and unfettered capitalism. Predictably therefore Breckenridge proves not to just have feet of clay but to be a monster in human form, crushing all he meets with his ‘charity’, robbing them of their individuality by his altruism – so the killer is pretty much a hero to all the suspects. Most of the characters are mere cyphers, with Serge faring especially badly as the Soviet stooge (this was a postwar revision to the play actually as the character was a German originally). To say that the arguments here are a bit loaded would be a real understatement and the dialogue unfortunately is mostly strident and unconvincing, especially in the romantic exchanges between Steve and Adrienne. But one must admit that the mechanics of the plot are fairly carefully thought out, though one can see just why Rand thought she couldn’t write whodunits. The killer would always ultimately be too predictable in terms of fulfilling her ideology, though here it is fairly well disguised it seems to me. Rand’s prose work, especially The Fountainhead, still stands up for the sheer force of her style even if you reject her ideology as the worst kind of infantile self-indulgence. Her dialogue is less impressive than the construction though and one can see why Think Twice was never produced professionally in her lifetime. The play can be found in the collection Three Plays that has been extracted from the 1984 anthology, The Early Ayn Rand, edited by her literary executor, Leonard Peikoff. Like all her work, it’s worth a look, but you take it seriously at your peril.