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The Winning Clue

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Hay, James Jr - The Winning Clue (1921)


I have just finished reading James Hays Jr's The Winning Clue and would like to nominate it as the novel featuring more prejudicial passages per square inch than any I for one have read.


It was published by Dodd, Mead and Company in l9l9 and is so over the top (particularly in the first quarter or so) that had it been published today I would have suspected it was intended as a savage satire. Whether or not it reflected the author's feelings or was intended to play on those of the day who agreed with certain attitudes I cannot fathom.


I won't scribble a review as such (the plot was complicated but the clues not always fair and due to solely to feminine intuition it suddenly dawned upon me about half way through the book, with no evidence to speak of, who was responsible for the crime) but I would like to note a few comments which hark back to our recent discussion on racism and other prejudices in GAD novels to support the claim with which I lead this cyber.


First, to set the scene. The detective is an unusual sort of character. None of your social butterflies, retired police officers, reformed criminals, or anything like that. No, Lawrence Bristow is a tuberculosis patient residing in Furmville, NC, as part of his cure. The town has treatment facilities for such patients but not all are in the hospital and Bristow lives on a street of bungalows inhabited by a number of fellow sufferers. His left leg is two inches shorter than the right, so he wears a steel brace from thigh to foot and a built up shoe, and finally in a bathetic note the reader learns Bristow has a crooked nose. He is vain and thinks solving the murder a few houses down the street will make him famous and launch him as a private detective.


He is not a nice man: at one point he beats information out of a woman although mercifully it is offstage.


The action kicks off with the murder of Mrs Withers, a woman also suffering from tuberculosis. She was livng at 5 Manniston Road with her sister, not far from Bristow at number 9. We then meet the local bumbling chief of police Greenleaf, who often exclaims "By cracky!" and allows Bristow to more or less take over the investigation.


During the unfolding saga we learn "Negroes always have large feet” and there are references to "darkys". It is observed they dress up after work to loaf about downtown on Saturday nights although the rest of the week they loaf wearing their ordinary workclothes.The n-word is liberally sprinkled in the text, including a usage based upon it, meaning fall to sleep easily.


A sample of the sort of dialogue allotted to black characters, as spoken by Lucy Thomas, the murdered woman's servant:


"But I ain't gwine say nothin'. Maybe I don' know. Maybe I is mistuk. De whole thing done got too mix' up fuh me. Maybe he kilt her an' maybe he ain' been nigh de place. But I wish I coul' know. My holy Lawd! I wish I done know all dat done happen."


We read of a fellow those face Bristow thinks indicates weakness, judging that the man shows "too much uncertainty, even a womanish timidity". Not to mention hair that is "carefully parted and brushed" and "much manicured fingers".


Then there's the Jewish pawnbroker, described as "thin, round-shouldered, with a great hook-nose and cavernous, bright eyes". It is particularly remarked he does not have an accent. Aside: He is a keenly observant man and would himself have made an excellent detective.


By the time I got two thirds through this novel I was anticipating a strange, odourless, poisonous gas would suddenly invade Bristow's bungalow and in would creep a devilish Celestial or two. Had it happened, Hays would have had a complete set of common stereotypes.


I googled Hays but so far have found nothing out about him except he published other works.


Mary R


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