Review: Death Stops the Bells (1938)
Death Stops the Bells (1938)--The third of Richard M. Baker's Van
Dine inspired and Van Dine endorsed mysteries featuring Franklin
Russell, schoolteacher sleuth. The first, Death Stops the Manuscript
(1936) was competent yet unremarkable in storyline, while the second,
Death Stops the Rehearsal (1937) was an improvement with a better,
more interesting plot (involving murder in a theatre) and a larger
cast of characters. Some problems however--the cast of suspects was
winnowed too quickly and the solution relied on a character foolishly
(and unnecessarily) witholding information. Despite these flaws Death
Stops the Manuscript remained an entertaining mystery and I looked
forward to reading Death Stops the Bells to see if the upward trend
continued with this volume.
DSTB begins promisingly. As in the other two volumes, Franklin
Russell is on vacation in the small city of Newtown (none of the
stories make use of a school setting). He is paying a call on Mrs.
Parlin, an old friend of the family, whose house is adjacent to the
Cavenger estate, an estate dominated by the large bell tower built by
the bell chiming enthusiast Jethro Cavenger. Jethro's three children
still reside on the estate, but because of a deep-rooted family
animosity two of the children, Mark and Amanda, live in the main
mansion with Mark's two adopted children, while the third, Luke,
lives in a smaller house next to the family mansion, with his wife
and two children.
As Russell visits with Mrs. Parlin, the bells begin to chime, and she
explains that they are being played by Luke's son, Andrew. Suddenly
the bells stop chiming, yet begin again a few moments later. Russell
notices a change in the tempo of the hymn being played and is
convinced that a second person has now begun chiming the bells. The
visit continues for some time, with Russell and Mrs. Parlin being
joined by Mark Cavenger, until Mrs. Parlin's son interrupts the visit
with the startling news that Andrew has been found dead in the bell
tower, his skull brutally crushed.
As the investigation commences, Russell comes to several conclusions--
that Andrew was struck at the moment that the bells stopped, that the
only person seen leaving the entrance to the bell tower, Andrew's
father Luke, chimed the bells the second time, and thirdly, that
although he was in the bell tower, Luke Cavenger did not kill his
son. In that case, who else was in the bell tower and how did that
person enter and leave the tower? Where is the weapon, and why was
the sheet music that Andrew was playing from removed?
Aside from the incongruity of the murderer choosing such a
conspicuous time to commit a murder, the problem of how the murderer
entered and left the tower is a captivating one--briefly.
Unfortunately, the author breaks one of the conditions required to
maintain the impossible situation (and the mystery of how the
murderer entered the bell tower). One's disappointment in having the
impossible situation done away with so quickly, is counterbalanced by
a second murder which is quite surprising--briefly. It soon becomes
apparent that Death Stops the Bells is simply a rehash of The Greene
Murder Case (with bell chiming thrown in for some novelty), lacking
clever solutions to any of the problems that the author puts forth.
My verdict: Imitation without innovation. Death Stops the Rehearsal
remains the best by this second-tier author.