Friday, March 11, 2005

A Matter of Policy by D. H. Reddall

“A Matter of Policy” by D. H. Reddall, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, April 2005

This story begins with Cape Cod PI Charles Stubblefield being hired by the attorney of accused murderer Ross Moody to establish an alibi for Moody. It seems that Moody, a mid-fifties degenerate drunk living on the street, killed a man, Frank Catlett, twenty years younger than him by throwing him through a plate-glass window, cut his throat with a glass shard, robbed him, staggered a few yards down the street and passed out. Moody’s blood alcohol level at the time was 0.28. Not unexpectedly, Moody doesn’t remember much about that night, but he thinks he was drinking at the Hollywood Lounge.

The whole scenario sounds pretty unlikely, so Stubblefield takes the case. In his initial investigation he can find a lot of people who know Moody, but no one who can establish his whereabouts the evening of the murder including the bartender at the Hollywood Lounge. Then Stubblefield runs into Sweeps, another street person, a sober one, who knows where Moody was on the evening in question. Moody was with a man named Jimmy Tagg, bad company, she says, and Moody was drinking heavily on Tagg’s dime.

Stubblefield heads back to the Hollywood Lounge and, with a little physical persuasion, induces the bartender to confirm Sweeps’ story. Tagg is an associate of a crooked lawyer named Bruno Fetter. Stubblefield knows something funny is going on, but he doesn’t know what.

About this time Stubblefield is visited by a sixth-grade teacher who believes her mother was cheated in an insurance settlement. Traditionally hard on the outside and soft on the inside, Stubblefield takes the case. He discovers that the Little Old Lady’s lawyer was the recently deceased Frank Catlett. This sends him sniffing around the insurance company, which leads him ultimately to all the answers about both cases.

The story is well written, interesting and has a pretty complex plot. What it also has is a lot of coincidence. Stubblefield doesn’t go looking for Sweeps, she finds him. And the schoolteacher, the one who finally sends him in the right direction, seems to drop in out the clear blue sky. The Greeks had a phrase for this, deus ex machina. Something modern writers are supposed to avoid. Would that Mr. Reddall had done so.

In short, I wish Mr. Reddall had been able to let Stubblefield do more of his own work.