Dragon’s Cave, published in 1940, was the eighth of Clyde B. Clason’s mystery novels featuring his amateur sleuth Professor Lucius Theocritus Westborough. Clason wrote ten detective novels between 1936 and 1941 before abandoning the genre, apparently because he disapproved of the directions in which crime fiction was starting to head.
Professor Westborough is an historian specialising in the Roman Empire and Clason’s mystery novels often focused directly or indirectly on antiquarianism or historical interests. In this case we have the murder of a collector of edged weapons, with the murder weapon being a 16th century Swiss halberd. The fact that the victim, one Jonas Wright, was found clutching a 19th century duelling sword suggests that he had attempted to defend himself but why would anyone choose such a light sword with which to defend himself from such a formidable weapon as a halberd? Especially given that he was killed in the room that housed his collection and could easily have chosen something much more substantial?
There’s also the matter of the blooodstains, which do not seem consistent with the apparent course of events.
Jonas Wright had been the owner of a photoengraving firm. His two sons and his daughter will inherit the business, or at least they will inherit Jonas Wright’s share of the business. Wright had a partner, Julian Carr. Carr had been rather friendly with Wright’s daughter Madeleine, a circumstance that had not met with the old man’s approval. Jonas Wright was something of a puritan and was not well pleased at the thought of a liaison between his daughter and a married man (for Julian Carr is married although separated from his wife).
All three of Jonas’s children had potential motives for murder, but they are not the only suspects. Julian Carr is a possibility also, as is artist Tony Corveau. Tony had also taken a very keen interest in Madeleine Wright.
Lieutenant John Mack of the Chicago Police is a competent officer but he’s only too happy to have Professor Westborough’s help, the elderly but shrewd academic having given him some vital assistance in several previous cases. Mack is not quite so thrilled at the assistance offered by reporter Allan Boyle but reporters are one of the crosses that a policeman has to bear.
Dragon’s Cave can be considered to belong to the S. S. Van Dine school of American detective fiction - it’s set among the moneyed upper classes, it has an exotic murder method, a complex plot and a colourful detective. Lucius Theocritus Westborough is much given to literary quotations and to displaying his familiarity with various esoteric fields of scholarship. He’s not as arrogant as Philo Vance and lacks Vance’s more extreme affectations and he’s much more amiable and even grandfatherly but he’s somewhat in the same mould.
Fortunately I happen to be a very big fan of the Van Dine school so for me all of these elements represent major pluses.
This story also offers not one but two locked-room puzzles. Clason does not elaborate these puzzles to quite the same byzantine extent as a John Dickson Carr would have done but on the plus side Clason’s solutions do not stretch credibility too far.
Clason’s style is witty, polished and erudite. Professor Westborough’s virtuoso displays of arcane knowledge are amusing and enjoyable and most importantly they’re relevant to the plot. Clason’s plotting is inventive and generally sound, and conforms to the standards of the fair-play puzzle-plot mystery. Clason is not entirely indifferent to characterisation or to the intricacies of interpersonal relationships (such as Julian Carr’s very complicated love life).
Dragon’s Cave is wonderful entertainment. Highly recommended.