Newton Gayle is one of the most obscure writers to have been elected to membership of the Detection Club during the Golden Age. In fact, the pseudonym conceals the identities of two writers: the American poet Muna Lee and the British businessman Maurice Guinness. Their third joint effort, Murder at 28:10, is my Forgotten Book for today.
The strange title refers to barometric pressure, and this is surely the only crime novel to feature a series of barometric charts. They were no doubt intended to increase the sense of realism in a story about a devastating hurricane in Puerto Rico. But I rather think they were unnecessary, because the writing is highly effective in evoking the terror caused by the hurricane, and some of the descriptive passages rank with the best descriptions of setting to be found in mysteries of the 30s (this book appeared in 1936.)
The politics of the day play an important part in the story, but didn’t mean a great deal to me. An attempt is made to murder an “internationalist and anti-imperialist” and, when the hurricane strikes a lonely mansion, the culprit takes advantage of the chance to finish the job. The setting provides a closed circle of suspects, and the build-up of tension is very well done. But although the plot is sound, I felt that the characterisation was the flimsiest part of the book – for instance, a promising suspect, a woman novelist, is never adequately developed. I was also rather disappointed by the murder motive. Had the people in the story, including Greer and Upwood, been more memorable, this would have been an outstanding book.
My guess is that Lee did the writing and Guinness the plotting, though I’m not sure about this. Nor do I have any information as to whether either of them ever played any part in the activities of the Detection Club – I doubt very much whether Lee did, though Guinness (whose cousin, a literary agent, was the ex-wife of Sir Hugh Greene, and engaged to Raymond Chandler at the time of Chandler’s death) may have done. But on the evidence of this novel, “Newton Gayle” was certainly a capable writer.