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Set in New orleans in 1927, DEADLY HALL features an impossible murder, a gothic romance, liberal splashes of local color, and a high sense of comedy.
Towards one in the morning he faced the fact that he couldn't sleep. Not yet, at least.
He rolled on his left elbow, right hand finding the chain of the little bedside lamp. Light revealed the subdued luxury of Stateroom 340, on the sun deck at the stern of the steamboat's starboard—no, not starboard: its two-whistle side. Its open window (never call windows portholes) overlooked the huge red-painted paddle-wheel, whose drowsy churning ought to have lulled him. And he was alone here, having paid for both beds.
They were beds, not berths, for the most sybaritic accommodation on the river. Time, twelve-fifty by his watch on the bedside table. The tiny leather-edged travelling calendar showed the date as Monday, April 18th, of this year 1927. By this hour it was now Tuesday, April 19th. The Grand Bayou Line's Bayou Queen, bound down the Ohio and the Mississippi for New Orleans, had left Cincinnati at noon on Monday. Their first stop would be Louisville, some time today.
Jeff Caldwell, who would be thirty-three years old in the middle of July, had many questions on his mind. Of sedentary habits, though neither ill-looking nor unathletic, he might have been considered too studious, too much a loner, if it had not been for his sardonic sense of humor. But the damned situation kept tormenting him. And he wanted a breath of air.
Light painted the shiny white walls a pale gold. The door of the little bathroom stood ajar. The other door led to the open deck on the two-whistle side. Jeff swung his legs out of bed, thrust his feet into slippers, and pulled a dressing-gown over his pajamas. Then, automatically lighting a cigarette, he made for the open.
Main deck, cabin deck, texas deck, sun deck: this atop all, under a fresh breeze and the edge of a moon. Except for the paddle wheel's churning, the soft slap of water past the side, hardly any noise. A scattered light or two, remote and ghostly; no other sign of life.
"Not even half full, this trip," they had told him at the company's office in Cincinnati. "You know how it is. People with plenty of money don't discover America, as a general thing; they travel abroad. We'll be full up June to September, 'cept maybe the luxury staterooms. Or maybe you don't know. First visit to New Orleans?"
"I was born and brought up in New Orleans."
"You don't talk like a Southerner."
"I was educated, if it can be called that, almost entirely in the North."
"Live at New Orleans now?"
"I don't even live in this country."
"Well, it's none o' my business ..."
'No,' Jeff had thought, 'it's not.' And he had said no more.
Now, leaning one elbow on the railing, shielding the fire of the cigarette in his other hand, he still pondered. Jeff Caldwell could not have denied that he did have plenty of money. With the Dixieland Tobacco Company continuing to prosper, as it had been prospering since his great-grandfather founded it in North Carolina well over a century ago, neither he nor Uncle Gil, his late mother's brother, need fear the future. He and Gilbert Bethune, now New Orleans's District Attorney, were the only surviving members of the family. But then Dave and Serena were the only surviving Hobarts.
As for what old Ira Rutledge had meant, no less than what Uncle Gil meant ...
The questions in his mind, far from being answered, were not even fully formulated. After crossing the ocean, he had gone by train from New York to Cincinnati for the slow journey by boat to his native city. Why was he doing this? Why did he think it necessary? Had the destiny of Dave and Serena Hobart, that strangely contrasted brother and sister, in some fashion become entwined with his own? Considering that his grandfather had once been so close a friend of old Commodore Hobart, their grandfather ...
Or it may have been so unexpected, half-frantic a letter from Dave.
On the Bayou Queen's sun deck, under smoke blown wide from her single chimney, Jeff Caldwell found his thoughts moving back not only over the past day or month, but over the past ten years. After all, how little he really knew either of New Orleans or of the relatives and friends of his extreme youth! How little time he had spent there!
Northern preparatory school from an early age, with only Christmas vacations at home. His father had died in '13, his mother a year later; he and Uncle Gil had sold the Caldwell house in the Garden District. Then, despite all his trouble with mathematics, he was admitted to Yale. He had not finished his junior year at New Haven when in April, just over a decade ago, the United States entered what must forever be called the Great War.
"You'll do, I suppose," Uncle Gil commented, "what you think you ought to do; or, rather, what you think you want to do. If I were a younger man, I should probably be damned fool enough to do it too."
And so, combining Creole Bethune with Anglo-Saxon Caldwell, Jeff had enlisted. First the long grind of basic training, then the long grind of officer's training; always, for one reason or another, some delay. Easy-going, imaginative, Second Lieutenant Jeffrey Caldwell was shipped to France. He had not yet gone to the front, never having heard guns fired in anger, when news of the false armistice immediately preceded news of the true armistice in the second week of November, 1918.
Shipped home to be demobilized the following May, Jeff afterwards went to New Orleans for a conference about his future. Gilbert Bethune had always resolutely refused to touch the family financial affairs.
"When any lawyer tries to handle his own family's finances," said Uncle Gil, "it means friction at best and bad blood at worst. Let Ira Rutledge deal with it, as he always has."
But Uncle Gil had sat in on the conference about his nephew's future. Jeff never forgot that day in 1919: himself not quite twenty-five, Uncle Gil lean and hatchet-faced at just on forty, Ira Rutledge lean and grizzled at what then seemed an advanced age, the perfect picture of a family lawyer who advised so many of the well-to-do, in Mr. Rutledge's dusty office above Canal Street.
"Now that we can take up our normal lives again, Jeff," the family lawyer said, "you'll be returning to New Haven?"
"No, I think not. They shouldn't have admitted me to begin with, and I can never graduate."
"But your academic record—!"
"Yes, that's what I mean."
"My dislike of mathematics or any form of science, sir, isn't mere dislike. It's full-blown hatred and lack of aptitude that today they'd call pathological. What difference how high a grade I make in English or history if I can't understand the simplest algebraic problem or proposition in geometry, let alone the more advanced math (plus one science) I need even to take an arts degree? Rightly or wrongly, taking a degree seems of no importance at all."
"Well, what do you intend to do?"
"What about finances, Mr. Rutledge? How's Dixieland Tobacco?"
Mr. Rutledge assured him that Dixieland Tobacco had never been in better shape, and that (always within reason, of course) whatever sum he required could be paid in monthly at the bank of his choice.
"I'm afraid I must still ask, my boy, what you intend to do."
"Live abroad for a while, I think. With a base in Paris, but visiting London as often as possible."
"Of course," Ira Rutledge said drily, "there's no real reason why you should work."
"Oh, I intend to work, sir, though some mightn't call it that."
"Just as you please. What do you want to do?"
"I want to write historical romances, as I always have. Swashbuckling stuff, not altogether free of gadzookses or the like, but at least historically accurate. France and England are ideal backgrounds for that. There's one other kind of novel I'd rather like to try, though I don't think I ever can."
"Indeed? And what is that?"
"Detective stories, about who killed whom and why. There's always a market for blood and thunder, and I love it!"
"Now there," Uncle Gil had interjected with some heartiness, "you're really speaking my language. Our friend Ira wouldn't touch a criminal case if they accused his own son of murder, and yet it's what I love. By all means write historical romances, provided you don't turn out the over-sugared confectionery we get so much of. Why not detective stories too?"
"Because I don't think I've got enough sheer ingenuity. You need a first-class, brand-new idea, with all the tricks of presenting it. Whereas the historicals can be managed. I'm probably going to make a hash of it. But I think I can write readable English, and I'm game for all necessary research."
"Let it be Paris, then," sighed Mr. Rutledge, "since you seem to have made up your mind. Whether you succeed or fail, from a practical standpoint, is of little consequence. When would you wish to go?"
"As soon as possible. There'll be quite a hullabaloo before they've finished the Versailles peace conference, but it needn't interfere with my daily life. Besides, being here won't be pleasant if they pass their so-called prohibition law, and close up New Orleans worse than Josephus Daniels and his ilk closed it up during the war."
Gilbert Bethune looked thoughtful.
"They'll never close it up completely," he said, "whatever they try. Speaking of detective stories and ingenuity, however, remember that here on our own doorstep ..."
Uncle Gil had paused there, and had not resumed. Long afterwards Jeff wondered if he had been referring to the Hobarts, an Anglo-Saxon family as old and respected as the Caldwells, and to the doubtless imaginary but still picturesque legend of Delys Hall.
Jeff could not remember old Commodore Fitzhugh Hobart, C.S.N., dead these many years. There had been only a nodding acquaintance with the late Harald Hobart, the commodore's son, father of David and Serena. Even flighty Dave and completely self-possessed Serena—the former his own age, the latter five or six years younger—could hardly be called close friends. What of others from the past? What had happened to Penny Lynn (nobody ever thought of her as Penelope), to whom he lost his heart during the Christmas vacation when he was seventeen, and had seen on only two occasions afterwards?
But such reflections had been far from him almost eight years ago. He took ship for France, chose a small residential hotel behind the Champs-Elysées, and, after much poring over documents at the Bibliothèque Nationale, he wrote his first novel.
He did not try to employ a literary agent, knowing none. Instead he sent The Cardinal's Jester to an acquaintance at the old New York firm of Keane & Sons. To his gratified astonishment they accepted it at once, as did Justus of London.
Whatever he did, work or laze, he must go his daily round. Jeff was no bohemian, except insofar as bohemianism may be practised by the clean and well tailored; he shunned the companionship of the left bank. Though too much a loner to make many friends, he made friends who liked him. There had been other contacts of a different sort: the French midinette, the English girl dabbling at sculpture, the bored American heiress who found something to interest her. During those early years, despite the awkward Channel crossing, he spent almost as much time in London as in Paris. Today, with both Air Union (French) and Imperial Airways (British) maintaining regular flights Croydon-Le Bourget, travel had become as easy as it was pleasurable.
At first, for all his long days at the typewriter, he had no success. The books, favorably reviewed, failed to sell. As novel followed novel into the nineteen twenties, each with its background of France or England in a different century, he told himself he must not chafe so much.
"Be grateful," he said aloud, "you've got an independent income."
Still, though with few aspirations towards best-sellerdom, he wanted to write one story somebody wanted to read. Then, for whatever mysterious cause, his fifth try. My Friend Foucbé, actually showed some profit. Witch's Eye, its successor, did better. In January of this year, before he had finished Till the Great Armadas Come, the publishers offered a new two-book contract at improved terms. He had hinted, they wrote, that he might be in New York that spring to deliver the manuscript. If he had been serious ...
Well, why not?
This notion of delivering the book in person had been with him for some time. He corresponded fairly regularly with Uncle Gil, hearing little from or of anyone else. Since '24 Uncle Gil had been Mr. District Attorney Bethune. Detective fiction, which Jeff had never tried, took the thesis that the prosecution is always wrong, the defense is always right. It delighted him that a lawyer so fond of mystery stories as Gilbert Bethune should find himself in that fictionally unrewarding office. Early in March, this year, Uncle Gil did write with news.
You may or may not have heard that Harald Hobart died of a heart attack last week. Yes, 'Harald' is correct; the old commodore's wife was a Danish beauty; hence the Scandinavian name. His father left him very well off, though they found no hidden hoard. If Harald never seemed particularly astute in business, there should still be quite a substantial inheritance for Serena and Dave.
Ten days later came a business letter from Ira Rutledge, in that dignitary's most discreet manner.
Subsequent to the demise of Mr. Harald Hobart, said the letter, there had arisen a somewhat delicate situation involving Jeff and one other person outside the family. As the Hobarts' legal adviser, of course, Mr. Rutledge could always explain by letter, which he proposed doing with the other interested party. However, since he had been led to believe Jeff would visit New York before the end of April, and would doubtless choose to visit New Orleans as well, he preferred to communicate in propria persona. Trusting he had been in receipt of no mistaken information, and would cause little inconvenience by the suggestion, he remained, very sincerely ...
It left Jeff fuming. What situation, delicate or otherwise, could possibly involve himself and one other person unspecified? Old Ira, rot his law-books, made discretion the better part of coherence.
As though that were not enough, the letter from David Hobart exploded soon afterwards. It had been handwritten on notepaper stamped with the crest of the Delys family, the Delys family being Hobart relatives not Creole but Norman English. Dave himself, fair-haired and wiry and intense, seemed to be there in the room.
If you're surprised to hear from me after all these years, Jeff, it's not because I've never wondered how you were getting on, or forgot the days when we were opposing debaters at Lawrenceville. You said you could write, and you've proved your point; more power to your elbow.
My reason for appearing out of the blue is this. I hear you'll be in America come spring ...
So they'd all heard it, had they?
For God's sake, Sabatini, you've got to be in New Orleans before May 1st at the latest! There's something wrong with the Ice Maiden, our Serena herself. I might even have said there's something wrong with me, only I'm such a sober, steady-going customer that nobody would believe I've got any nerves. Don't ask me what I'm talking about; it's all too indefinite. Just get here!
You may miss your Uncle Gil; there's a big political do at Baton Rouge about that time. Though he hates politics, or says he hates politics, I swear they're grooming him to be Senator Bethune or Governor Bethune. You can stay with us, can't you? Jeff, this is so infernally important—
He had already decided to go. But he told nobody except Mr. Sewall of Keane & Sons. To Ira Rutledge he wrote in terms as veiled as that pundit's own, saying he hoped to be present but must refrain from promises. To Dave Hobart he was equally noncommittal. To Uncle Gil, whom he hoped to surprise, he wrote nothing at all. If Uncle Gil happened to be absent, he would neither stay at Delys Hall nor disturb old Melchior by invading his uncle's apartment; he would put up at a hotel.
He finished Till the Great Armadas Come, getting three copies made. At Cherbourg he boarded his favorite liner, the Aquitania, which landed him at New York just before the middle of April.
Excerpted from Deadly Hall by John Dickson Carr. Copyright © 1971 John Dickson Carr. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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