- By Isabel Ostrander
- First published: US: W.J. Watt & Co., 1919
Isabel Ostrander (1883–1924) wrote 30-odd detective stories, several featuring her Irish duo: ex-cop Tim McCarty and fireman Dennis Riordan. Ostrander’s novels are almost completely forgotten today, but they were well known enough for Christie to parody in Partners in Crime, and for Sayers’ characters to read (in Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club).
Sayers considered Ostrander “a particularly competent spinner of yarns. Her straightforward police-detective, McCarty, is always confounding the conclusions of Terhune – a ‘scientific’ private detective, who believes in modern psycho-analytical detective apparatus.” Sayers particularly admired Ashes to Ashes (1919), a detective story told from the murderer’s perspective – “a very excellent piece of work which, in the hands of a writer of a little more distinction, might have been a powerful masterpiece”. Most of her books are on the Internet Archive – and Ostrander merits investigation.
When The 26 Clues, the second McCarty and Riordan case appeared in 1919, H.W. Boynton in The Bookman called Ostrander “the best going in this line, among Americans at least”. Two years later, the British Spectator thought it “A first-rate detective story. The multiplicity of clues and the rivalries of the investigators are so ingeniously handled that the reader is kept thoroughly mystified up to the last chapter.”
The Twenty -six Clues is almost one of the best detective stories of the 1910s: impressive because it is ahead of its time, disappointing because fair play is still in the future.
Calvin Norwood collects crime. In his private museum, he has the pocketknife that convicted a factory superintendent of murder; the knotted rope which proved that Ogilvy, the eccentric Scotch millionaire, was hanged and did not commit suicide; the corn plaster that poisoned the little Thorndike heiress; a black wallet belonging to the murdered yachtsman Hoyos; and the skeleton of the Duchess of Piatra, the poisoner of Bucharest. But his latest acquisition takes him aback. He whisks off the sheet to display the late Duchess – but in its place is the body of a young woman, strangled that evening! Then all smiles stopped together.
The 26 Clues is very nearly a Golden Age baroque puzzle plot of the sort S.S. Van Dine, Ellery Queen, and John Dickson Carr produced a decade later. We have the bizarre murder, an intellectual milieu, and suspects who are collectors and scholars (Van Dine). The whodunnit problem is foremost; the focus is on the detection, and the mystery is compelling. As in early Carr, the investigation continues into the small hours of the night; there is a detailed examination of the crime scene (museum and victim’s room in a nearby house) to reconstruct what happened. The more they investigate, the more puzzles the detectives find: blackmail letters written in macaroni paste; the housemaid’s toothache; a terrifying slice of Christmas cake; and missing fingerprints. The mid-book revelation bs gur ivpgvz’f cybg is the same sort of game-changing, surprising but logical twist Carr specialized in (e.g. The Plague Court Murders or The Four False Weapons).
Ostrander’s novel is surprisingly modern – a more sophisticated detective story than I was aware existed at the time. The first two decades of the 20th century are still the age of the short story: of the Man in the Corner, Father Brown, and Max Carrados. Freeman introduced scientific rigour, but in form he imitates Conan Doyle. Mason’s At the Villa Rose is only half detective story; Hanaud arrests the culprits midway, and the narrative flashes back to the crime. There’s Trent’s Last Case, of course, leisurely spinning multiple solutions like smoke rings – but that’s a parody and an outlier.
But this is still 1919 – and pre-Golden Age authors like Ostrander don’t yet feel obliged to share all the clues with the reader. McCarty’s solution is logical; his evidence is conclusive – but it’s not evidence the reader is allowed to see. This is particularly galling because until then Ostrander played fair.
Bookman (H.W. Boynton, May 1919, 130w): The author is, I think, the best going in this line, among Americans at least.
Springfield Republican (8th June 1919, 200w): The story possesses unusual suspense.
ALA Bkl (July 1919)
The Spectator (21 May 1921): A first-rate detective story. The multiplicity of clues and the rivalries of the investigators are so ingeniously handled that the reader is kept thoroughly mystified up to the last chapter.
A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): Although very dated in its use of situations and devices long since overworked, clearly a competent piece. We have two murders in a private museum of crime, the inevitable compromising letters, the rivalry between the scientific detective Terhune and his police force opposite, McCarty. Detection mostly by legwork; the 26 “clues” are simply the letters of the alphabet, rather nicely worked in.