SLEUTHING IN THE DARK: Death Knell by Barnard Kendrick

One way or another, I’ve developed myself into a monstrously clever fellow. My brain’s as fertile as a pomegranate. My heart’s as cold as Troy Singleton in morgue vault twenty-two. I do jigsaw puzzles and hook together pieces of wood that I can’t even see. It makes a picture of death, Davis. I’m blind Justice, the messenger of God. Stick around with me long enough and I’ll get you, too.”

It has been over a year since I was introduced to mystery author Baynard Kendrick, thanks to Otto Penzler’s republication of Odor of Violets through his American Mystery Classics series, as well as to the whims of my Book Club. Kendrick, who would become the first president of the Mystery Writers of America, had developed a fascination with how blind people adapted to their situation when he taught blinded veterans during World War II, and he used his experience to create Duncan Maclain, the genre’s first blind private detective. Armed with indomitable courage, his experience as an ex-intelligence officer, and the support of two magnificent German Shepherd guide dogs (the savage Drieste and the savvy Schnucke), Maclain proved to be something of a superhero in Odor of Violets, where he defeated a nest of Nazi spies in high-toned suburbia.  

This was Maclain’s third adventure, and I’m happy to say Penzler will be publishing Kendrick’s follow-up, Blind Man’s Bluff, this June. It sounds like a corker of a case involving the plunge from a high rise to his death of a blind bank executive. It also introduces the love of Captain Maclain’s life, decorator Sybella Ford. To tide me over till then, I happened upon a lovely Dell Mapback copy of Death Knell, which follows Blind Man’s Bluff, and decided to dive right in. It turns out that both of these titles appear in Robert Adey’s Locked Room Murders (entries 1123 and 1124), so we have the added bonus of a pair of impossible crime novels. 

Like a number of urban mysteries from the 1940’s and 50’s (Patrick Quentin’s 1952 Peter Duluth mystery Black Widow comes to mind), Death Knell opens at a cocktail party fraught with tension. Duncan Maclain has been invited to the penthouse terrace apartment of Larmar Jordan, a best-selling author who, in the manner of crime novel artists, is as turbulent a personality as he is a talented artist. Even as he sits quietly in a chair with the gentle Schnucke, Maclain’s keen ears pick up scintillating conversations amongst his host and guests who, along with Maclain himself, include Jordan’s agent, Sarah Manley, his loyal secretary Paul Hirst, and journalist Bob Morse, who is writing a profile on the writer for the New Yorker. 

The tension swirling around Larmar’s serial faithlessness to his charming wife Lucia reaches a peak when his latest paramour, the beautiful and dangerous Troy Singleton, shows up at the party claiming that Larmar himself had invited her. Jordan tries to break off the affair, but Troy returns the following afternoon to deliver a final message to her ex-lover. Larmar leaves her alone on the terrace to make a couple of cocktails, hearing the carillon from the church across from his apartment building chime the hour. When he returns, he disovers Troy sprawled dead in her chair, shot in the heart. The church bells have sounded a death knell!!

Behaving as guiltily as an ostensibly innocent man can, Larmar lands himself in jail, bringing Captain Maclain back onto the scene when the lovely Lucia, a longtime friend of Maclain’s fiancée, asks for his help. Duncan initially expresses little hope for success: 

 “The New York Homicide Squad is a startlingly efficient machine. I feel forced to tell you something even at the risk of causing Sybella and Mrs. Jordan a certain amount of pain. I’ve known Inspector Davis and worked with him for years. He’s usually right . . . The truth of the matter is that I’m not a wizard, and the facts sound very black . . . As a matter of fact, they’re just about as black as can be.

And isn’t that just how we like our mysteries: with impossible situations, confounding evidence, and our heroes backed into a desperate corner? One of the best aspects of the two books in this series that I have read so far is how Kendrick portrays his detective’s heroism, humanity, and remarkable facility with discovering information despite – and maybe, in another sense, because of – his blindness. Using his heightened senses of hearing and touch, Maclain can walk with a suspect from the patio into the man’s house and determine what the man looks like (even the length of his hair, as “hands on hair made sound”), the fabric and cut of his clothing and, using the echoes of his own voice, the dimensions of the room they are in.

With the Captain’s partner and best friend Spuds Savage away (he spends the novel visiting Washington D.C. and is joined by his girlfriend, Maclain’s secretary Rena), Duncan relies on his lovely fiancée. Sybella turns out to have hidden depths, reminding me actually of Lisa Fremont, the high fashion model girlfriend to the disabled James Stewart in Rear Window (played to perfection by Grace Kelly). At one point, Sybella lands in the same sort of hot water as Lisa when she decides to break into the victim’s apartment in order to find out some information Duncan needs. Suddenly, the case gets deeply personal for our sleuth. 

It all leads to a suspenseful climax involving threats to life and limb for man, woman and dog. The solution to the impossible crime is quite, er, fanciful, and although I never figure out these sorts of things, I was pretty sure about the identity of the killer for a certain obvious reason and was proven correct in the final moments. I cannot defend Baynard Kendrick as a puzzle-maker worthy of Carr or Christie, but as a late-Golden Age writer, he combined suspenseful action with strong characterization, topped by an intriguing detective whose blindness was anything but a gimmick. 

James Franciscus as Mike Longstreet, with his trusty guide dog Pax

Some of you may know that the character of Duncan Maclain appeared in two movies in 1938 and 1942, based respectively on the first novel, The Last Express and Odor of Violets. The detective was played by a horribly miscast Edward Arnold, an otherwise fine character actor who was by then too old, too heavy and too hearty to take on this role. Then, in February 1971, the ABC Movie of the Week, which worked hard for six years to give the network and television in general more credit as a producer of quality films, broadcast the pilot for a series about an insurance investigator named Mike Longstreet, who is blinded in a deliberate explosion that also killed his wife. The character, played with intensity by James Franciscus, was loosely based on Duncan Maclain. It led to a disappointingly short-lived series that was produced by Sterling Silliphant, who also wrote many of the episodes. The movie pilot centers around Longstreet coming to terms with his blindness, making the solving of his wife’s murder almost a peripheral issue. Still, the pilot and all 23 episodes are available on YouTube, if you’re so inclined. (The legendary Bruce Lee appeared in four of them, playing a martial arts expert who trains the blind investigator to fight.) So is 1942’s Eyes in the Night, if you don’t believe me about Edward Arnold. As for me, I’m just looking forward to getting my hands on Blind Man’s Bluff!

6 thoughts on “SLEUTHING IN THE DARK: Death Knell by Barnard Kendrick

  1. These sound very interesting. I think Death Knell (1945) was actually the 5th Maclain novel with The Odor of Violets/Eyes in the Night (1941) being the 3rd and Blind Man’s Bluff (1943) being the 4th.


    • If you read that second paragraph carefully, I got the order right. It doesn’t help that I placed a picture of the Death Knell cover next to “This is the third . . . ,” and I’m sorry if that confused matters. I’m sorry I couldn’t read them in their proper order, as Kendrick does develop and advance Maclain’s private life throughout this trio of titles.


    • Absolutely. Although he premiered before the official start of the “Golden Age,” Carrados’ career was long-lived. I’m not sure if he appeared in any novels? The only story I’ve read is the first, “The Coin of Dionysus.” I, er, enjoyed Duncan Maclain more. Kendrick started writing at the tail end of the Golden Age, and MacLaine’s career extended well beyond it. I’m not an expert on either detective, and I think I’ve read the opinion somewhere that something about the Maclain books – whether their overall quality or their adherence to mystery tropes – wavers as the series goes on. (“Something,” “somewhere” . . . very vague, I know. (But still well worth reading!)


  2. I can’t compare the quality of the two, having never read the Duncan MacLaine books. I think I did see one of the movies but only vaguely remember it. I remember more about the Van Johnson movie “23 Paces to Baker Street” about a blind writer turned detective, with Vera Miles doing the faithful-girlfriend thing, and some great British character actors


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