Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Get Ready To Rumble: The Rumble Murders (1932), by Mason Deal (Henry Ware Eliot, Jr.)

What one does with a dead body has always been a pressing problem for murderers, both in crime fiction and in real life crime.  During the 1920s and 1930s a fictional or actual killer could always conceal his unfortunate slaying victim in a convenient "rumble seat": upholstered exterior seats which folded into the rear decks of two-seater cars.

Between-the-wars newspaper headlines indicate that the "rumble" indeed offered go-to disposal for gangsters saddled with inconvenient cargo (for example, "Two Gunmen Slain, Left in Parked Car: Blood Stains on Mudguard Lead to Finding of the Bodies Jammed in the Rumble Seat").

"Mason Deal" not only wrote about bodies left in rumbles in his only detective novel; he named this novel The Rumble Murders. It is being reissued in the coming month, with an introduction by me and an afterword by David Chinitz, professor of English at Loyola University Chicago.

rumble seat, filled this time, happily, with live bodies

One of the admirers of this entertaining detective novel was mystery fiction fan and renowned poet, playwright and essayist T. S. Eliot, who in 1932 wrote the author an admiring letter about his book:

I read any detective story with enjoyment, but I think yours is a very good one; I am simply amazed at any human mind being able to think out all those details.  I am quite sure I could never write a detective story myself....But apart from my astonishment at your skill in plot, I was especially interested by the book as a social document....

Henry Ware Eliot, Jr. and his
wife, artist and illustrator
Theresa Anne Garrett
Admittedly, T. S. Eliot was already partial to the cause of the author, as "Mason Deal" was in fact Tom's elder brother, Henry Ware Eliot, Jr (1879-1947).  At this time Henry had recently left a partnership in a Chicago advertising agency and seemed to be contemplating a career as a detective fiction author. (He wrote his brother Tom that he was writing a second detective novel, but it never seems to have appeared in print.)

Henry later became a Research Fellow on Near Eastern Archaeology at the Peabody Museum, Harvard, where his principle work, published posthumously, was Excavations in Mesopotamia and Western Iran: sites of 4000-500 B.C.: Graphic Analysis (1950).  As this title suggests, Henry had a mind for intricate detail that was well-suited to the writing of classic detective fiction.

The Rumble Murders is set in a wealthy suburban development (Tom Eliot divined that the setting of the novel was Winnetka, Illinois, near Chicago) and concerns the disruption of life that takes place when two dead bodies are inconveniently discovered in rumbles in the area.  Several of the locals, including a visiting detective and a detective story writer, decide to investigate the crime for themselves, as a sort of moonlighting "homicide squad."  One reviewer noted the series of delicious complications which follows:

What with footsteps going up a concrete wall; a burglarized silo; a missing Colt 45; a barrel of excelsior; a lost family cemetery rediscovered, the queer cryptogram...; and the baboon shooting the babyroussa; not to mention the two bodies crammed into the rumble seats of two cars, one driven into the lake--Mr. Deal provides all the elements necessary for a neat little puzzle.

T. S. Eliot

Modern fans might be reminded of the donnish detective fiction of Ronald Knox and Michael Innes. Eliot and his characters don't treat murder with grave solemnity, seeing it more in the nature of a mental game.  I think you will enjoy playing.


  1. hooray,another little gem discovered and reprinted

  2. And there are more on the way! More about this soon.

    1. yes,not only the big ANONYMOUS FOOTPRINTS treasure,but the wondrous new series by Elizabeth Gill in England!

  3. I have the book The Rumble Murders signed by the author.

    1. Was it signed "Mason Deal" or Eliot? It's a very rare book in the first!

  4. I never thought I'd see the words babyroussa and rumble seat in the same sentence! I've always regretted not having a car with a rumble seat and believe it or not, when I was a boy scout I was in the short-lived Babyroussa Patrol!

    1. My mother recalls riding in the rumble seat back in the 1930s. I had never heard of a babyroussa!