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The Devil Drives

Page history last edited by PBworks 16 years, 4 months ago

There are two books by this name - by Markham, Virgil and Chance, John Newton


Markham, Virgil - The Devil Drives


"My poor body, madam, requires it: I am driven on by the flesh; and he must needs go that the devil drives." - Shakespeare, All's Well That Ends Well, Act 1, Scene 3


Virgil Markham's The Devil Drives (1932) is a story somewhat out of its time. Its prison opening reminds one of the jailbreak in Jack Boyle's "Boston Blackie's Mary" (1917), although it is told from the point of view of the warden, not the inmates, unlike Boyle's tale. And the subsequent underworld scenes recall Frank L. Packard's The Adventures of Jimmie Dale (1914 - 1915). Both Packard and Markham write about respectable heroes who take on new identities as low life tough guys, and who infiltrate the New York underworld. Both men use disguise, another Packard favorite. The numerous other characters in Markham stories with multiple identities also recall Packard. So does the prominence of safecracking in the tale, and the secrets contained therein: Packard's hero was mainly a safe cracker. The names of Markham's bad guys, such as Raffy the Guk, recall such Packard monikers as Larry the Bat. Both Packard and Markham describe the underworld as a place full of shadowy figures, hiding out away from respectable people. There is also a certain tone of Romance in Packard and Markham, a feeling that entering the underworld is a great adventure.


This gives Markham's story the flavor of a story written nearly twenty years before 1932. Chapter 6 of The Devil Drives refers, by plot but not by name, to G.K. Chesterton's story "The Queer Feet" (1910), another late Edwardian reference. Later on, Markham's detective Inspector Veen talks about Rudyard Kipling's "The Return of Imray" (Chapter 18) and Thomas Bailey Aldrich's "Marjorie Daw" (Chapter 19), even older references.


Although Markham's novel was published by Alfred A Knopf, who were also Dashiell Hammett's publishers, there seems little sign that Markham had ever read Black Mask, or absorbed any of its conventions of hard-boiled writing.


The Devil Drives also completely fails to observe the conventions of the Golden Age novel, with an opening murder, a detective, and a closed circle of suspects. Indeed, for its first half no murder is committed at all; the hero instead tries to track down a secret which seems like a plot device out of a romantic melodrama. The Rogue story seems to have served as an alternative paradigm during the 1920's and 1930's, a different model for writers like Virgil Markham, J.S. Fletcher and Harold MacGrath, who all published mysteries that bore no resemblance to the typical Golden Age detective stories of their day.


The locked room puzzle of The Devil Drives is a new wrinkle on the locked room story. I don't know if it is fair play; surely the police would have figured it out after investigation. Still, it is something that I haven't seen elsewhere, and is a mildly interesting idea. If The Devil Drives were a short story concentrating on its locked room puzzle, it would be an anthology standard. Unfortunately, this plot is embedded in a not very good novel, one that meanders all over the place without much point or interest. The book cannot be recommended as a whole.


Mike Grost

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