David Carroll
Created by Octavus Roy Cohen (1891-1959)

If Octavus Roy Cohen is remembered at all these days, it's for his two early detectives, fat, folksy white private eye Jim Hanvey and buffoonish black sometime-detective Florian Slappy, or his unflattering and stereotypical caricatures of blacks, particularly in the Slappey stories. Granted, those were different times, and there doesn't seem to be much evidence of malice in his depictions but, as mystery critic Jon Breen rightfully suggests, "let’s just say (the stories are not) not likely to be reprinted any time soon."

If Hanvey and Slappey were colourful, cartoonish and occasionally (especially in Slappey's case) over-the-top, DAVID CARROLL was not. A case could arguably be made for him as an early private eye, but he was far more in the Great Detective mode, having a lot more in common with Sherlock holmes, say, rather than Race Williams.

He was small and reserved, boyish-looking despite his thirty-something years, and tended to play things close to his chest. Here's how he's described in Midnight (1922):

"It wasn't David Carroll's way to talk much, or to show any untoward emotion. It was Carroll's very boyishness which was his greatest asset. He had a way of stepping into a case before the principals knew he was there, and of solving it in a manner which savored not at all of flamboyance. A quiet man was Carroll, and one whose deductive powers Eric Leverage fairly worshiped."

Despite his apparent colourlessness, however, Carroll is well-regarded as a private detective, and often finds the police gratefully turning over open investigations to him to solve -- this despite the fact that his probe of police corruption has made him few friends with the boys in blue. He's also a slick hand at getting suspects to talk and, of course, usually holds back on any theories or conclusions until the very end of the case. Suffice it to say that in the David Carroll books, the usual suspects are usually gathered at the usual time.To test whether I wanted to persevere with Cohen, I read three novels about his first series sleuth, David Carroll (small, energetic, and relatively colorless), and two about his better-known Jim Hanvey (fat, languid, and folksy).  Despite their differences, the two sleuths have much in common: they have such a high reputation as private detectives that official police turn over the running of their cases to them with nary a qualm; an emphasis on their humanity, including a friendly approach to witnesses and suspects; and a tendency (like many sleuths of the period) to enigmatically hold back their conclusions until ready to break the case.

Still, there are signs of the burgeoning P.I. genre: the suggestion, first of all, that the police might be corrupt, and plenty of colloquialisms and underworld slang which, although dated now, must have seemed like a burst of fresh air at the time. And all the books are purportedly "cleverly constructed and highly readable," with the latter entries in the series even working in some humour and some early Golden Age fairplay.

SHORT STORIES

  • "Gray Dusk" (December 6, 1919, All-Story Weekly)

NOVELS

  • The Crimson Alibi (1919)
  • Gray Dusk (1920)
  • Six Seconds of Darkness (1921)
  • Midnight (1922)...Read this book

PLAYS

  • THE CRIMSON ALIBI
    (1919)
    Description: A play in a prologue and four acts.
    Adapted from the novel by Octavus Roy Cohen
    Written by George Broadhurst
    Original Run: Broadhurst Theatre, New York; July 17, 1919-August 1919)
    Total Performances: 51
    Produced by George Broadhurst
    Directed by Mrs. Lillian Trimble Bradley
    Starring Harrison Hunter as DAVID CARROLL
    Also starring
    Robert Barrat, Catherine Cozzens, Mary Foy, George Graham, Edna James, Gardner James, Robert Kelly, Roy La Rue, Thais Lawton, William E. Lemuels, Bertha Mann, Inda Palmer, William H. Thompson, Thomas Traynor, Robert Vaughn

RELATED LINKS

  • A Note on Octavus Roy Cohen
    Mystery critic and writer Jon Breen weighs in on the value of Cohen, in this short but fascinating article from Mysteryfile.com   

Report respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.


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