The armchair sleuth has been a fixture of mystery fiction from the days of Baroness Orczy’s ‘old man in the corner’ and Jacques Futrelle’s SFX Van Dusen. However, the frankly insane Inspector Allhoff was surely pulp fiction’s first wheelchair-bound detective. The creation of D’Arcy Lyndon Champion (1902-1968), Allhoff originally appeared in the pages of Dime Detective from 1938 to 1946 and the first ten of his thirty cases have been collected in this handsome volume from Altus Press.
I offer the following review as part of Bev’s 2015 Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her fab Pattinase blog.
“I knew there was some ghastly thought in the recesses of his dark and tortured mind” – I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead
Allhoff is not officially in the employ of the New York PD because a few years earlier he was shot several times during a bungled arrest, leading to the amputation of both his legs – and the loss of much of his sanity. Trouble is, he is just too good at solving crimes. So money is found to keep him unofficially on the books and he moves into a tiny and very rundown apartment opposite the station house – his one condition is that rookie patrolman Battersly be assigned to him. Why? So that Allhoff can torment him every day – because it was Battersly who was meant to immobilise the shooter all those years ago during the arrest. But he got scared and Allhoff was cut down in a hail of bullets. The stories are narrated by Simmonds, a seasoned cop a few years away from his pension, who has been put in place to try and keep things calm (not that he has much success with that). Allhoff may occasionally ease off for a few minutes, but he is usually in a state of near or complete hysteria, engaging in endless tirades against Battersly while insisting he is the only man in the entire NYPD with any brains at all. He then picks on cases that usually Homicide thinks they have already solved, just to prove them wrong.
“You insulted me. You mocked the loss of my legs. You jeered at me. You derided me. Well, you’ll burn now. I hope you’ll remember when they strap you in the chair, that Inspector Allhoff sent you there! I hope you keep remembering while you burn in hell!” – A Corpse for Christmas
In his fine intro, Ed Hulse points to the debt the series owed to the Nero Wolfe stories and the fact that it pointed towards the long running Ironside TV show of the 1960s and 70s (let’s forget about the recent remake – everybody else has). The main difference is that Simmonds (who in a typical bit of pulp fiction editing becomes ‘Symmonds’ in one story) really hates Allhoff for his arrogance and the sadistic way he treats Battersly – but Allhoff is none the less always proved right, usually cracking the case by drawing on some unusual bit of information (such as the direction in which one writes in Hebrew). The stories themselves are pretty substantial, being 15,000 word novelettes, giving Champion plenty time to remind readers of the premise for the series each time (they originally only appeared about 3 or 4 times a year).
“Allhoff,” I said hotly, “if there’s anything lower than a louse, you’re it. You didn’t have to do that to Battersly. God, man! Have you no decent instincts? Have you no feelings?” – Cover the Corpse’s Eyes
Which is to say that it is a mistake to read too many of these in close succession as in each one Simmonds one again describes the relationship between the three men; Allhoff’s background and unofficial status; his addiction to strong coffee (which he drinks from a chipped and unwashed cup); and the slovenly state of the apartment too, which is all a bit grim but Champion does inject some humour too. There is a wonderful comic sequence in A Corpse for Christmas where Allhoff is brought a turkey by a no-nonsense young do-gooder as a charity believes that a person living in such reduced circumstances must need the help, leading to a glorious bust up. This is actually one of my favourite stories, along with Sergeants Should Never Sleep (a very elaborate tale involving a Nazi spy ring), as they both allow outsiders into the central trio, though Champion is very crafty, always folding this into the solution of the case. On the other hand, while these pulp stories stand out for their unusual emphasis on deduction rather than fisticuffs, they are also very repetitive, with virtually all the cases involving a staged suicide that Allhoff proves was actually murder. My absolute favourite may be Cover the Corpse’s Eyes, partly because it’s one of the few in the collection not involving a faked suicide and partly because the revelation of the murderer is an outrageous surprise that left me with a great big grin on my face.
So pace yourself as these unusual stories, told with great gusto, are well worth reading, especially in this new edition from Altus that is printed in a glossy trade-paperback format with a minimum of errors (except those that may have appeared in the original pages of Dime Detective), also reproducing the original illustrations by John Fleming Gould (1906-1996).
The stories in this collection are:
- Footprints on a Brain (1938)
- I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead (1938)
- Lock the Death House Door! (1938)
- Cover the Corpse’s Eyes (1939)
- Dead and Dumb (1939)
- A Corpse for Christmas (1939)
- Sergeants Should Never Sleep (1940)
- Turn in Your Badge! (1940)
- There Was a Crooked Man (1940)
- Suicide in Blue (1940)
I submit this review for the 2015 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘short story’ category: