Saturday, March 17, 2018

#29 - The Stingaree Murders by W. Shepard Pleasants (1932)

About this selection:

About the author: This is evidently his only novel. In Biographical Sketches of Cartoonists & Illustrators in the Swann Collection by Sara Duke, it is noted that he and John Churchill Chase created a comic strip series on New Orleans history in the 1940's. 

Principal characters:
  • Leonard Reade, the host, owner of the New Orleans Herald
  • Harvey Reade, his son
  • Marie Reade, his daughter
  • Wayne Whitsell, architectfriend, and narrator
  • Pierre Lacroix, governor of Lousiana
  • Paul Green, his bodyguard
  • J. D. Henderson, lawyer
  • General Pitts
  • Anne Pitts, his wife
  • Archibald Hurley, Commissioner of Conservation
  • O'Niel Henry, of the New Orleans Herald
  • Needle, servant
  • Si Ling, boat engineer
Locale: The Gulf of Mexico


Thirteen people are aboard the houseboat Terrapin, guests of publisher Leonard Reade. They set out into a remote region of the Gulf on a fishing expedition. One the guests, Louisiana Governor Pierre Lacroix, shows a threatening letter he has received from "The Stingaree Gang", rumored to be drug smugglers. Lacroix has written a secret plan to round them up. Lacroix sets off from the houseboat in a small skiff to fish, and is later found dead, stabbed, with a barb from a stingaree (stingray) in the wound. Then the boat's motor is disabled, and they are marooned in the marshes. Boatman Si Ling volunteers to row to the mainland for help - and he, too, is found dead in his skiff. Two more murders will follow before the murderer is found.


This is a nice tight little mystery, well constructed, especially in Chapter One as the characters are introduced, and in the take-a-breather-and-review-the-suspects (Ch. 12). Th spectacle of the passengers, none of which trust each other trying to stay on deck all night to keep an eye on each other reminds of the famous can't-fall-asleep scene in Treasure of the Sierra Madre

That's the good part. The bad part is the continual distraction by cringe-worthy items such as:
  • Marie Reade deliberately tossing her hat overboard and telling African-American Needle to dive in and retrieve it
  • pejorative terms used in referring to various nationalities
  • the speech of Needle rendered in phonetics ("Thank de Lord my haid am dry"), 
  • likewise, Si Ling ("Si Ling velly solly motor no good")
  • gender stereotypes ("A woman would have abided by intuition, but I was a man, and as a man, I sought logical reasons to support my opinion.")
  • needless killing of animals
Also see this review by TomCat, a.k.a. Last Century Detective, who sums it up this way: "I found this an interesting curio with a fresh look on an old theme and plenty of good ideas, but its unashamed airing of 1930's racial opinion makes this a problematic book to recommend to a modern audience. If you can put it down as a product of its time and think you have come across every trick in the book than you simply have to pick this one up."

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