Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Blood Will Tell: George Bagby

I read a lot of books by George Bagby when I was younger -- he wrote at least fifty books in the Inspector Schmidt series -- but I am sure I did not read them all. I do remember liking them a lot, so over the last few years I would pick up one now and then in used bookstores.  Blood Will Tell was my first foray into the Inspector Schmidt series in many years.

This is one of those series where the author name is the same as the name of one of the characters; in this series George Bagby narrates the books. In Blood Will Tell, a very rich and obnoxious man has been murdered at the Basingstoke building on Park Avenue. Inspector Schmidt is not looking forward to the investigation because the upper crust think that no one in their circles could be responsible for such a crime.

The main players are: Rudolf, the princely doorman; Simon H. Merrill, the victim, described on the dust jacket as "a very dirty man with lots of even dirtier lucre"; Diane Leggett, engaged to Merrill; and Sybil Swain, another friend of Merrill's. Both Diane and Sybil have apartments at the Basingstoke.

Bagby describes Sybil, when they first meet her at her apartment:
She filled in the outlines of my mental picture too perfectly. A tall woman of ripe and handsome figure, she displayed to even the most casual glance the fact that nature had endowed her generously and that she had freely and fancifully indulged her every whim to improve upon nature. She had the longest lacquered fingernails I have ever seen. She had hair the color of a Halloween pumpkin. She wore a fiery red negligee of some diaphanous stuff that gave you the illusion that if you looked you might see everything she might have to show.
The story is told almost entirely via interviews at the Basingstoke apartment building with various suspects or persons who were familiar with Merrill's routine. Bagby also gives his views of how the inspector works and the various characters.

Much of the story depends on the way the building is designed. Merrill's body is discovered on the fire stairs, which is a set of stairs behind the apartments that allow access only from the apartment (the door only opens one way). Another key element is an elaborate ruse carried out by a mother and her daughter to represent their apartment as large and sumptuous to impress people (especially Simon Merrill). They are clearly trying to give the impression that they are doing well financially.

At least based on this book, the only parts of police procedure that are chronicled in the Inspector Schmidt series are interviews and gathering evidence from the scene. The author was quoted in his New York Times obituary as saying "I don't go in for descriptions of what police labs do and that sort of thing. My books pretty much depend on the mental processes of the detective."

As I read this book, I realized that George Bagby's narration resembles that of Archie Goodwin in the Nero Wolfe series. There are other similarities. In both series, the novels are primarily set in New York City and they often feature prosperous people who have no idea how the rest of the world lives. There are differences, of course. Archie actually works for Wolfe and participates directly in the investigation. Bagby is more of the Watson type, telling the story, giving his thoughts on the investigation as it proceeds, but not taking part in the investigation.

In Whodunit? A Guide to Crime, Suspense, & Spy Fiction (1982, ed. H.R.F. Keating), the series is described:
The stories are upbeat, the New York background as real as being there, and for about fifty years Bagby has never aged, always a pleasure to read.
For me, this book was partially successful. The story was a little convoluted and unrealistic for my tastes; but possibly the story isn't that unrealistic, even for these days. The telling of the story is entertaining, but I wanted more variety. Either spending more time outside of the building. Or more reporting on police procedures. I have a few more George Bagby books, published in 1952, 1956, 1965, and 1980. I will try those and see how I like them. There were at least 15 books in the Inspector Schmidt series published in the 1930s and 1940s. I would like to find some of those.


George Bagby is one pseudonym used by Aaron Marc Stein, who also wrote mystery series under his own name and the pseudonym Hampton Stone. He wrote over 100 mysteries from the 1930s through the 1980s.

This book is my submission for Past Offences' monthly Crimes of the Century feature. This month the year chosen was 1950.

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Publisher:   Crime Club, 1950.
Length:       219 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Inspector Schmidt
Setting:      New York City
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.


16 comments:

  1. I've never heard of the author - either pseudonymously or otherwise before Tracy. I don't think I'm tempted by him - sorry!

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    1. Not one I would expect you to like, Col. Although some of the books you have read and liked I have been surprised at, so one never knows.

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    2. You're right - I sometimes surprise myself by enjoying some books more than I expect to.
      Still that said - on this occasion I'm not minded to add him to the tubs, even if I would probably, maybe, on balance, perhaps enjoy him!

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    3. I know how you feel, Col. I really want to get through some of the books I have, and not add new authors.

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  2. Never heard of this writer either but thanks for reviewing him. Sounds like an uneven read. I hope to read more of the books I own this year and only adding favorite writers who release books this year. That's the plan anyway....

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    1. I think I was expecting too much out of this book, Keishon, since I remember reading so many of them years ago. Now that I have tried one, I want to read more to see how much they differ from this one.

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  3. Hmm...sounds like a series that is more or less really good, but has some unevenness, Tracy. Still, it's not one I'm familiar with; I may have to try it.

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    1. Margot, having read more about Aaron Marc Stein recently, and all of his books, I am surprised he is not better known now. I will have to try some of the other series books.

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  4. I remember reading a list a few years ago of people who had won Grand Master Edgar Awards. I think Stein was the only name that I didn't recognize at all. I'm glad to see from the comments that I wasn't the only one.

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    1. His name is definitely less well known, Steve. I don't even know when I learned that Bagby was a pseudonym for Stein. I am sure all my reading at the time came from the library.

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  5. George Bagby books used to be everywhere. I kick myself when I think about the books I should have picked up when they were so available. Now, not so much...

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    1. Me too, I don't see many of them at used book sales, and some are not that easy to find online either.

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  6. New to me, too, Tracy, but your review is enticing.

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    1. Mathew, I realized later that this book does not explain exactly why Bagby is constantly with Inspector Schmidt on his cases. Of course I know from reading a lot of the books, and if readers were familiar with the series when it was published, it would not matter. But a bit of explanation would have been nice. It was fun and I will read more of them.

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  7. Never heard of him as George Bagby, but have come across one of his pseudonyms, Aaron Marc Stein. I am amused that this one is in the Basingstoke building - near where I live there is a town called Basingstoke which is famed for being very dull and unattractive...

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    1. Moira, I plan to try some of his books under his own name and as Hampton Stone. Someday when I find some copies. I was interested in whether the building was real but I just now looked it up and all I found was the town you mentioned. I found a website called "It's Basingstoke Not Boringstoke."

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