Isabel Ostrander

Isabel Ostrander

05 January 2016
<i>at 1:30</i>
at 1:30

With the New Year comes a renewed determination, not only to catalogue my book collection, but to systematically read my way through at least my Arthurian romances and lady scribblers. Not to make excuses for my chronic over-ambition, but last year's attempt at this project began with a copy of at 1:30, by Isabel Ostrander, purchased more or less at random on the basis of its cover, which may explain, if not excuse, my dilatory progress.

The book was credible and enjoyable. And I don't mean that to sound like I'm damning with faint praise. Isabel Egenton Ostrander (1883-1924) was a remarkably prolific mystery writer who published at least 30 books under several pseudonyms, including Robert Orr Chippenfield, David Fox, and Douglas Grant in a lifetime that only lasted 41 years. But it's arguable that she was in fact over-productive.

<i>at 1:30</i> illustrated by W.W.Fawcett
at 1:30 illustrated by W.W.Fawcett

at 1:30 (1915) is a beautiful book, with illustrations by W.W. Fawcett. It features a blind detective Damon Gaunt, who several argue invented the genre before Ernest Bramagh's Max Carrados. That claim depends, rather implausibly in my opinion, on the presupposition of a "misplaced" manuscript of a short story that predates the 1913 introduction of Carrados. Perhaps it is better to claim simply that Ostrander was among the first, and does a creditable job of creating a detective who can, among other things, distinguish white from black pepper simply by touch.

The blind detective
The blind detective

However, Gaunt's rather fey way with an accusation scene, which seem to involve an inordinate number of gnomes, ogres, and fairy princesses, is more than a little annoying. And after the mystery's killer is revealed - to no-one's surprise, at least from my point of view - the story culminates in what I would nominate as the worst last line of a mystery - ever.

Even less could be said about The Fifth Ace, published under the pseudonym Douglas Grant, a Western that I abandoned as unreadable after three chapters. Anything Once, published under the same pseudonym, managed to intrigue me for a while, but it wound up too quickly and schematically, at the expense of what was developing as a genuinely interesting relationship between the two main characters. As for the The Crevice, a book whose central murder was scathingly dismissed by one reviewer with the observation "Miss Ostrander had obviously never met an American financier," the best I could say was that I managed to plow through it. No intrigue. No puzzle. And yet Ostrander's co-author on that book was none other than William J. Burns (1861 - 1932), also known as "America's Sherlock Holmes," because of his position as the director of the Bureau of Investigation, the FBI's predecessor.

William J. Burns
William J. Burns

In May, 1924, Burns was forced to resign and was replaced by J. Edgar Hoover. After that, he devoted the rest of his life to private investigation and writing "true crime" stories such as The Crevice. Burns' most famous private case was an investigation clearing Leo Frank, a Jewish factory owner who was lynched for the murder of Mary Phagan, a thirteen-year-old factory worker. Burns literary efforts were never equally significant. And yet one cannot help but wonder whether, despite its flaws, The Crevice should be classed among the first police procedurals, and whether Isabel Ostrander ought to be admired as the inventor of, not one, but two, classic genres in mystery fiction.

© - Erica Obey
Photos © - George Baird