Friday, March 18, 2016

Engineering Murder: Louis F. Booth's The Bank Vault Mystery (1933) and Brokers' End (1935)

Louis F. Booth (1903-1996) was a New Jersey civil engineer who turned for a few brief years to writing detective fiction when during the Great Depression he was laid off by the construction company that employed him.

floor plan from Brokers' End
His two detective novels, The Bank Vault Mystery (1933) and Brokers' End (1935), were published in the United States, England and France to good notices, including one from Dorothy L. Sayers, who contrasted Booth with what she deemed the "Bedlam" school of then-modern American mystery, with its gangsters, graft and "Bowery-flowery language." 

Rather, Sayers compared Booth favorably with her Detection Club colleague Freeman Wills Crofts, an Anglo-Irish railway railway engineer and one of the preeminent Golden Age exponents of sober (what detractors termed "Humdrum") classical detection (see my Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery).  A "well-constructed, agreeably written yarn about stolen bank notes and murder," pronounced Sayers of The Bank Vault Mystery, adding reassuringly for her readers that it "will appeal to English taste."

Certainly Booth's novels resemble mysteries by Crofts and his contemporary John Street, with sober and meticulous plots and considerable technical finesse.  The corporate settings in Bank Vault and Brokers' End also resemble certain novels by Crofts and Street, such as Mystery in the Channel, Crime at Guildford, Death on the Board and Robbery with Violence.

Autographed copy of The Bank Vault Mystery
Louis Booth signed this copy for a fan from a nearby New Jersey town.
Her skyscraper book plate was appropriate both for the novel and the author.
Note the review clipping on the left.

Brokers' End, about the murderous expunging of partners in a brokerage, actually seems like something of a precursor to Death on the Board, one of the better Street "John Rhode" novels. Booth even defies "Humdrum" stereotype by including some well-turned love interest in his novels, as well as a sardonic take on the business world in the years following the Great Crash (an event that has resonance today too).  Intriguingly, the novel is, absent the murders, based on a real life scandal in the financial world that was making headlines when Booth was writing it.

There's more about Booth and his mysteries in my introduction to the Coachwhip reissue of The Bank Vault Mystery and Brokers' End, which will soon be available. If you like Crofts and Street or J. J. Connington or John Bude, you might want to give Booth's American variants a try.  As Sayers noted, there are no tough guys in the books, just tough problems.

Both cases are investigated by civilian Maxwell Fenner, specialist in high-finance fraud, and hard-driving Inspector Bryce. Fenner is not a flamboyant, eccentric sleuth--his main Great Detective mannerism is twirling a gold pencil during moments of intense cogitation--but he does find solutions, and he takes more of a personal interest in the cases that you might at first expect.


  1. New writer for me. You don't mention the detective who I see after reading that DJ blurb is named Maxwell Fenner. Is he in both books? Is he a banker? That would make him somewhat unique. I thought the only banking sleuth (in a series of books, that is) was John Putnam Thatcher who didn't show up until the 1960s.

    1. It's an investigative team in both books, inspector Bryce of the New York police and Maxwell Fenner, consulting specialist in fraud cases for bonding houses. Fenner is the solver.

      I mentioned Emma Lathen in the introduction, there's definitely a certain similarity.

    2. Added a bit about Bryce and Fenner. Was planning, and am still, to say more about the mysteries when they are reissued!