Tuesday, February 18, 2020

The Penthouse Murders by Raymond Holden (1931)


About the author: Little is known (by me) about this author. Wikipedia has an article on author William P. Holden, but I am not convinced it is the same person; as the one in the article wrote books of poetry and music history, no fiction is mentioned.

Locale: New York City

Major characters:
  • Tappan Willett, wealthy New Yorker
  • Charles Corlear, his wealthy friend
  • George Harper, private investigator
  • Eliphalet Barnwell, found dead on the penthouse terrace
  • Julio, Barnwell's manservant, found dead inside the penthouse
  • Barbara Holger, last person to see to Barnwell alive
  • Rufus Polhemus, Barnwell's attorney

Synopsis: Two wealthy New York City buddies, Tappan Willett and Charles Corlear, live together summers in the city while their families head off to the luxurious suburban estates. One night they decide to go to a penthouse party of an acquaintance (Eliphalet Barnwell), and on the way pick up their P.I. friend George Harper. 

They arrive at Barnwell's penthouse. As they are going in, they meet a woman (Barbara Holger) on her way out. Once inside, they find Barnwell dead - stabbed - on the terrace. No one seems to be around. Harper heads out in pursuit of Holger, as she must have been the last one to see Barnwell alive. Willett and Corlear call the police, and while looking around, find Barnwell's manservant, Julio, alive and well, sleeping in his room. The police arrive. While they investigate, Julio is now found with a knife in him - dead. 

Barnwell's attorney, Rufus Polhemus, arrives for an appointment with Barnwell, unaware he is no longer living.

Harper follows Holger to her apartment. She attempts to escape but Harper finds her in the adjacent building. While in his custody, she sustains a minor gunshot wound also.


There are some issues with this book. 

  • Tappan Willett and Charles Corlear and two cardboard characters who are really not necessary to the plot, they only serve to introduce P.I. George Harper, who takes the plot forward. While Harper investigates, Willett and Corlear amuse themselves by instructing the police how to do their jobs. One of these characters could be easily cut, perhaps both.
  • There is only one female character to be found (but in her defense, she does have three identities!)
  • Some of the description is ... well ... you decide: "The unshaded kitchen globe, accustomed to casting its radiance upon flour-drifted meatballs, batter bowls, and dismembered vegetables, dropped a kind of shroud of pallor over the lovely face of Miss Barbara Holger, who was laid out like a large salmon on the linoleum."
  • Barbara, shot through the arm, calmly brushes it off and continue with life as usual.

This book had a great premise - a murder (Julio) occurring while the police are present, but no murderer to be found.

As the last few pages approached, I was skeptical all the loose ends could be wrapper up - there were too many outstanding: the coded message? who killed Barnwell? who killed Julio? how was it done with the police present? who shot Barbara? Why does she have three different identities?

The Barnwell murder is the primary puzzle, and the murderer is, indeed, revealed. We find the murderer used the old dodge (well, in 1931, it could have been a new dodge) of injuring himself following the murder, to make it appear he is an additional victim).

The big letdown is the Julio murder. At the end, this is brushed off with a speculation that someone came in the window and did it, then left. Sigh.

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