Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Feather Cloak Murders
by Darwin and Hildegarde Teilhet
1936 Doubleday, Doran and Co.

An ancient Hawaiian ceremonial cloak, an ocean cruise, romance on the Hawaiian islands, and several bizarre murders. It's the ingredients of a good mystery, especially coming from Darwin Teilhet and wife Hildegarde, who wrote three other novels featuring the Baron von Kaz as well as various Polynesian romances, picaresque adventures, and impossible crime novels. With Feather Cloak Murders, the Teilhets don't quite pull it off.

First the good: The Feather Cloak Murders contains nice, exotic settings (aboard the ocean liner Kohala and ashore on various Hawaiian islands) about which the Teilhets are very familiar. The denouement is clever and multi-leveled.

Baron Franz Maximilian KaragĂ´z von Kaz is a unique hero. I have a tough time guessing precisely what he looks like, but I imagine a largish, well-built man with somewhat dark features, probably around 30 years old. He is likeable, but as conceited as they come. He's so quick to remind us how brave he is, that the narrator frequently refers to him as "the brave Baron von Kaz." He is pretentious, particularly with women. He is infatuated with Caryl Miquet (although he would say that he's merely destined to be her valiant protector), and is convinced she has mutual affections toward him despite the annoyance and irritation she shows. (In the end, the romance does turn in the Baron's favor). The Baron is an Austrian noble with some gypsy blood, but has been avoiding his motherland for rather vague financial, legal, and/or political reasons. (Among other things, he is an ardent anti-fascist). In short, the Baron has the stubborness of Nero Wolfe, the stiff foreign idiosyncracies of Hercule Poirot, and the snobbish conceit of Philo Vance.

Caryl Miquet is traveling from California to Hawaii along with her cousins Mary and young Billy McKay and three men. The Baron is aboard as well, serving as bodyguard to Mr. Hiroshita who is bringing (or so he says) a valuable jade to Hawaii. Toward the end of the voyage, the Baron stumbles upon the body of Kohler, a man who has been dogging Hiroshita. Kohler was killed by a dart shot from an airgun. Shortly after landing in Honolulu, Mr. Hiroshita is similarly killed by the same weapon.

Throughout the convoluted plot, after his initial client is killed, the Baron is hired by Japanese gangsters to recover a 57 carat Aztec diamond, and then by Miss Miquet to discover who has been going through her mail. Eventually we learn that the real plot is to find a map, hidden inside a soapstone plaque, which reveals the location of Prince Puakini's tomb (deep within volcanic caves) and recover the priceless feather cloak.

While reading The Feather Cloak Murders was not unpleasant, I was forced to page back and forth numerous times to keep track of what was going on, and in the end I was left wondering about plot elements that seem to have been forgotten by the author.

The Feather Cloak Murders did not engage me as well as Teilhet's previous Baron von Kaz novel, The Ticking Terror Murders. Nor, from all accounts, is it as good a novel as the subsequent Crimson Hair Murders, which I will, to be sure, be reading in the near future.

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