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King, Rufus

Page history last edited by J F Norris 6 years, 10 months ago

Rufus King (1893-1966) was an American writer. He was educated at Yale, joined the Army in 1916 and later went to sea as a wireless operator. During the 1920s 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 centred on Stuff Driscoll, a criminologist in a sheriff's office. He also wrote humorous plays with detective themes.

 

Mike Grost on Rufus King

 

King was a prolific novelist, playwright, and short story writer in the Van Dine school, whose career stretched from the 1920's to the 1960's. I have only read a little of his work so far. Some of it seems to be fair play, puzzle plot detective stories.

 

King had a vivid writing style, with colorful characters, events, and images. He was clearly a born writer. "The Weapon That Didn't Exist" (1926) shows a special exuberance in its allusion filled prose. It also has a nice puzzle plot. The star of this tale is King's series detective Reginald De Puyster, who is clearly related to Philo Vance. It is hard to tell at this date, who came first, Vance or De Puyster. The first Vance book appeared in 1926, the same year as De Puyster apparently appeared in short stories in magazines. Both men are verbally witty sophisticates. King's later series detective, Lt. Valcour, is much more down to earth, but similar sophisticates appear as suspects in some of the Valcour novels, such as Dumarque in Murder by Latitude (1930). The clever, arch repartee ascribed to Dumarque seems especially Philo Vance like. De Puyster was spoofed by Isaac Asimov, no less, in his story "Author! Author!" (1943), a fantasy which focuses on a mystery writer whose fictional detective Reginald de Meister comes to life. Asimov's basic situation has been much imitated by later writers and filmmakers.

 

The Fatal Kiss Mystery (1924, 1928) is a misleading title. The story is not a mystery at all; it is a whimsical science fiction novel about a young scientist who transports people to another dimension. There is much romance involving Bright Young Things in the 1920's sophisticated style. The whole book seems paper thin and largely uninspired. Chapter 2 has an interesting introduction of his hero.

 

Lieutenant Valcour

 

After De Puyster, King created New York police Lieutenant Valcour, and starred him in a series of 11 novels from 1928 to 1939. King was formed as a mystery writer before Van Dine, unlike most of the Van Dine school, so he is less close to Van Dine than are such younger writers who followed in Van Dine's footsteps such as Anthony Abbot, Ellery Queen, and so on. In addition to characters who recall Philo Vance, other similarities of King's Valcour novels to Van Dine include unusual, hard to detect murder methods, a setting among New York's upper crust, elaborate, novel length storytelling, a tragic tone, complex literary style and well constructed dialogue. Differences include less of an interest in pure detection: Valcour seems less relentlessly focused on detective investigations than are Philo Vance, Thatcher Colt or Ellery Queen. There is considerable emphasis on the emotional life of King's suspects, often at the expense of the mystery plot. The overwrought emotionalism of the opening chapters of Valcour Meets Murder (1932) even recalls the Had I But Known school. Some of King's stories show a tendency to degenerate from mystery tales into thrillers, for example, Murder by the Clock (1928-1929).

 

King's early Valcour novels are full of water imagery: the sea and the wet fogs in Murder by Latitude, and the rain, dew and flooded rivers and bogs in Valcour Meets Murder. Liquids are often referred to by him as well: ink, tap water, creams, drinks, wax. King's novels are full of abstract imagery, used to describe mental processes or emotions, and this imagery is full of references to fluids, too: tears, lakes, rain, protoplasm, jelly, and words like "floating" or "drenching".

 

While King was reaching new heights with the traditional formal mystery tale, he also created another new sleuth, Dr. Colin Starr. Starr appeared only in short stories, not novels, and mainly solved mysteries with medical clues. This links him to a long series of medical sleuths, notably R. Austin Freeman's Dr. Thorndyke, Mary Roberts Rinehart's Miss Pinkerton, Theodora Du Bois' Dr. Jeffrey McNeill, George Harmon Coxe's Dr. Paul Standish, and Lawrence G. Blochman's Dr. Coffee. The earliest cases were collected in Diagnosis: Murder (1939 - 1941); there are also later, uncollected tales, some of which were reprinted in EQMM and The Saint Mystery Magazine. Many of the medical mystery ideas show ingenuity. However, they are not always fair play; King does not always share clues with the reader. However, the tales make interesting reading anyway. The titles of the tales use Perry Mason conventions: they tend to begin with "The Case of", then have an alliterative adjective and noun.

 

The Starr tales take place among the country club set of a small Ohio town. These rich people are mainly dedicated to l'amour. King perfects the tone here he will later use in his South Florida short stories, of love affairs wryly narrated, and set among the luxurious homes and clubs of the well to do. The stories are rich in color, and a sensuous feel. The third person narrator maintains a tone of sly cynicism in describing these affairs. This Ohio town is near many rivers, and the presence of water also anticipates the Florida Gold Coast setting of the later short stories.

 

Diagnosis: Murder also contains the less interesting "The Case of the Lonely Ladies". This fairly long novella is written in a different style from the rest of the Starr tales, grim and not much fun.

 

The Later Suspense Novels

 

King's works of the 1940's show an interest in art. The Dr. Starr tales refer to paintings of the Hudson River School, while Dowager refers to Bougereau. These are realist painters of the 19th Century, artists who preceded the modernist movement, and took absolutely no part in it. One might contrast King's taste with Stuart Palmer - his Cold Poison (1954) refers to such modernist painters as Klee, Picasso and Dali. King's references in both cases are designed to illustrate the contents of old mansions, buildings whose art was acquired a long time ago by their occupants' ancestors. Under these circumstances, fairly old movements in art are most appropriate. King's comments show considerable sophistication about art.

 

King's "biography" of Valcour also associates the French school with an interest in psychology; the article on Ernest M. Poate discusses this further. King's work sometimes dealt with characters who suffered psychological abnormalities. These were not the foaming at the mouth serial killers of today; instead they were troubled by the Freudian oriented psychodramas of 1940's noir. One of the best film noir thrillers of the 40's, Fritz Lang's The Secret Behind the Door (1948), was based on King's novel Museum Piece No 13 (1946). A woman marries in haste, only to discover that her husband has this psychological problem... The problem is G rated, but boy is it a doozie. (This is the sort of over the top 1940's psychoanalysis that was spoofed by Steve Martin and Carl Reiner in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid.) While our hero's traumas are never believable, the film is extremely entertaining and gripping, with first rate storytelling, direction and photography.

 

King's last works were a series of short stories set among the rich in Miami and its environs; many of them were published by Ellery Queen in EQMM. Although King's use of Miami has been compared to John D. MacDonald, it also recalls the Florida stories of Philip Wylie. In addition to setting, other Wylie-like features include an emphasis on botany and Florida plant life, amateur detectives who discover sinister conspiracies, and the use of international intrigue.

 

"Malice in Wonderland" (1957) contains some of King's most magical atmosphere and mise-en-scène. The tale is written as a sort of sinister fairy tale, full of events that can be given a supernatural interpretation. King used rich and brilliant color in these Miami stories, especially in his descriptions of deserts. In "Malice", we see exotic ice cream dishes that are described in full color. By the way, "Malice in Wonderland" was originally the title of a 1940 novel by Nicholas Blake. When Ellery Queen first published King's short story in EQMM, he thought the phrase would make a good title for the story, and he used it, with the permission of both Blake and King.

 

"The Seeds of Murder" (1959) is an impossible crime tale. There are clues that allow one to deduce who the killer is, at least after you have figured out how the crime was done. This is the paradigmatic detective situation in such Ellery Queen works as The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935). This story seems even closer to Queen than to Van Dine. It focuses on the sort of rich, eccentric, multi-talented extended family of adults that often pops up in Queen tales.

 

"The Faces of Danger" (1960) is written in a partly summarized style. This style recalls, to a degree, that used by Ellery Queen in his Q.B.I. stories and parts of his Calendar of Crime. However, King's approach is less condensed than Queen's. Queen used it to tell a whole story in less than ten pages, while King's novella sprawls over forty. Both writers like to use the approach to invoke, and partially lampoon, the clichés of storytelling. In both, there is a certain sophistication of tone, a suggestion of sophisticated satire on conventional plotting. There is the feeling in both writers in which a game is being played by the author. In this game, the author tries to come up with the "best" response by the characters to each new situation. For example, a body might be discovered, and the next step in the story is tell what the characters are going to do. Sometimes this response is original, sometimes conventional. The more conventional responses are presented to the reader with irony, using a summarized statement to invoke the chief elements of the familiar situation. Less familiar responses are sometimes contrasted with the clichés of fiction, to underline the originality of the situation. So a description will contain both its true content, and its opposite.

 

The whole effect is of a game the author is playing with the reader, challenging them to guess how the characters will behave in any new situation, suggesting a duel of wits between the writer and the reader over the most original response to any event in the plot. This is in keeping with, but further extends, the basic active reading approach of most mystery fiction. In most mystery tales, the reader is not supposed to sit back, and just let the events of the tale wash passively over them. Instead, the reader is challenged to deduce the true solution of the mystery at every turn. The reader, in turn, constantly monitors the author's plot for logical consistency, and surprise. This sort of active readership is applied to every event in the mystery plot. In Queen and King, this approach is extended not just to the mystery puzzle plot itself, but every fictional development in the story: the characters' attitudes, responses to events, social conditions and backgrounds, police procedure, the romance subplot, details of the social milieu such as butlers and mansions, in short, every aspect of the story. This allows active readership as a universal response to the tale.

 

King always likes verbal fireworks in his tales; such an approach gives him many opportunities in that direction. It allows for an exuberant writing style, one filled with elaborate turns of phrase and much wit.

 

Bibliography

 

Mystery De Luxe (1927) aka Murder De Luxe

The Fatal Kiss Mystery (1928)

Murder by the Clock (1929)

Somewhere in This House (1929) (aka A Woman Is Dead, paperback digest version: A Murderer in This House)

Murder by Latitude (1931)

Murder in the Willet Family (1931)

Murder on the Yacht (1932)

Valcour Meets Murder (1932)

The Lesser Antilles Case (1934)  (also published as Murder Challenges Valcour)

Profile of a Murder (1935)

The Case of the Constant God (1938)

Crime of Violence (1938)

Murder Masks Miami (1939)

Holiday Homicide (1941)

Diagnosis Murder (1942)

Design in Evil (1942)

A Variety of Weapons (1943)

The Deadly Dove (1945)

The Case of the Dowager's Etchings (1946)

Museum Piece No 13 (1946)

Lethal Lady (1947)

The Case of the Redoubled Cross (1949)

Duenna to a Murder (1951)

Malice in Wonderland (1958)

The Steps to Murder (1960)

The Faces of Danger (1964)

 

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