Murder in Triplicate is the second of two Hugh Austin mysteries the New York-based Sun Dial Press published in 1935. Its premise is enough to entice any classic detective fiction fan. Quint investigates three consecutive murders at a wealthy businessman’s residence, where guests are assembled for a house party. In three hours, three people are murdered, all strangled from behind and stabbed in the chest with landscaping scissors. The police are on location for Murders Two and Three, but they are always a few rooms away and a couple steps behind. And there’s one more peculiar detail: all three victims had the ends of their nose cut off (and presumably discarded; Quint’s technicians never announce a discovery).
I will stay with the puzzle plot and offer my compliments first. There is no denying that the concentrated frenzy of the murderer’s spree means that the narrative moves along at an impressive clip. Murder in Triplicate is not a difficult novel to read and enjoy from a plot perspective; it is quite entertaining to play the game and try to guess who is responsible among the guests that are still standing by the final chapters. The author (or publisher) conveniently provides one of those charming Notes to the Reader that tells us, on page 251, that “every fact and every clue upon which [Quint] has built his solution have been presented in the preceding chapters” and that “the GUARANTEE given to you has been fulfilled in spirit as well as in fact.”
And the fair-play assertion is true, although the solution turns out to revolve around alibi and motive more than the florid but fascinating specifics of murder method, weapon, and nasal mutilation. Taken on its merits as a curious puzzle to be worked out and a colorful crime story to keep the reader engaged, the book is a modest but qualified success. It is Hugh Austin’s inability as a writer to develop and delineate characters, craft compelling dialogue, and deliver readable prose that truly makes the experience painful.
Other than Lieutenant Quint, you will notice that my plot summary a few paragraphs back names no other characters. That’s because, even after 200 pages, no one made an impression due to the author’s handling of his cast. I remember the surnames Merritt and Arnold, and there are a couple of people named Patton running around with a Lang thrown in, but I never formed a mental picture of anyone. We are told that this man is blustery or this woman is high-strung, but they speak in such an artificial style that they barely register as placeholders much less as characters. It should be obvious, too, that if they are drawn so poorly and unconvincingly, there is no reader concern generated regarding anyone’s fate. Every so often, Austin deviates narratively from the police perspective and devotes a chapter to the mental state of Jean Patton, an ingenue who worries and fidgets and refers to everyone by their first names when we know them, barely, by their last (Mr. Merritt, Mrs. Arnold, etc.).
But Murder in Triplicate is the type of book – and Hugh Austin the type of author – where none of the drama feels real. Everyone seems to act stereotypically or histrionically, and prose attempts to create tension or craft detail end up overwritten, hyperbolic, and silly. It’s the type of description where I try to envision the literal execution of the line I’m reading and fail completely. Take, for example, this sentence:
She repeated the question, neither mechanically or dully, [and] her sporadic way of speaking was no longer that of half-formed thoughts shot out of a hectic eagerness, but that of words, thoughts, wrested from a complete preoccupation.
I checked recently with Nick Fuller to see whether his comment on Hugh Austin’s sparse PB Wiki page still stands. He says it does, at least in relation to his debut detective story:
I started to read Hugh Austin's It Couldn't Be Murder (1935), which had been highly praised by Torquemada. Torq's normally a very reliable and astute critic, but I got halfway through before deciding not to continue. The problem is that Austin can't write - his style is horribly clumsy, with short, jerky sentences alternating with bathetic purple prose. Has anyone else tried to read Austin and failed?