Murder by Latitude (Rufus King)

  • By Rufus King
  • First published: US: Doubleday, 1930; UK: Heinemann, 1931

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

Murder by Latitude is dreary and doesn’t play fair; kudos, though, for the chapters in which each suspect gives an account of their movements and points the finger at another suspect.  (Michael Innes did something similar in Death at the President’s Lodging.)

Blurb (US)

“Mr. Gans, the wireless man, was dead.  His body, looking tired and flat, sprawled on the boat-deck close by the entrance to Captain Sohane’s quarters.  There were bruises upon a neck that had always been thin and ineffective.  Some one had closed his fingers about the throat and kept them there until the lungs no longer functioned.  His heart had stopped beating…”

So begins the strangest case in the career of Lieutenant Valcour of the New York police.  Somewhere aboard the steamship Eastern Bay, bound from Bermuda to Halifax, a killer lurked.  His ghastly work was as yet unfinished.  The death of Mr. Gans had been only the opening move in the game, and Valcour knew it.  Valcour knew everything but the identity of the killer.  And before he could rip the veil of diabolical mystery, life after life had been snuffed out with cold-blooded ingenuity and inhuman ferocity.

Selected by the Crime Club as the best detective story of the month – acclaimed by readers as the best in years.

Death was a stowaway aboard the Eastern Bay—and Lieutenant Valcour engaged in the grimmest, strangest case in all his detective career.

Blurb (UK)

Here is a new murder mystery by Rufus King.  The author of that first-class story “Murder by the Clock” seems to have a penchant for original and unusual plots.  Readers of that story will remember that the “murderer” ostensibly died twice within a few hours!  Once again, in “Murder by Latitude” the plot is strikingly original.  The action takes place on ship-board.  A murder is committed; everyone on board, including the crew, has a claim to be included in the list of suspects and the murderer (his or her identity will surprise you) is found by the time the voyage across the Atlantic is over.  Lieutenant Valcour, that shrewd but very human detective, has a case very much to his liking and the reader will not find himself disappointed with its telling.

Contemporary reviews

Books (Will Cuppy, 30th November 1930, 250w): Strange as the fatal motive turns out to be, Mr. King makes it seem reasonable enough as life goes aboard mystery ships.  We have decided that nothing can be done about Mr. King’s passion for quasi-ingenious chapter headings and tables of contents; a pity, for his stories are good enough to dispense with this sort of equine plumage.

Bookm (December 1930, 100w)

Daily News (Charles Williams, 18 February 1931): Murder by Latitude takes place on a ship – a dangerous risk both for the author and the murderer, but Mr. King justifies himself. The wireless operator is strangled, and the ship cut off from communication. The second death here is a murder for gain – and yet obscurely justified by the acts of human beings, by their egoism and their perversities. There is in this book a hint of that loneliness within and without winch so often strikes with an interior terror the reader of Conrad: nor does it seem out of place that the captain, suddenly discovering that the ship is at odds with the constellations, should cry out: “There is something the matter with the stars.”

Even more like greatness is that other moment when the same captain, overwhelmed, gazing lethargically at the body of the young passenger, says only, thinking of its sea burial, “Our stock of spare canvas is getting low.”