Mayhem in B-Flat shows no slackening in Pauls comic ingenuity and gusto.
In many ways it is the most carefully plotted and paced of the first three Homer Evanses.
Like its predecessors, Mayhem begins on a trademark terrasse, but in Rouen
not Montparnasse, "watching the barges and freighters come and go" on the Seine.
It is a year since "the spectacular conclusion of the Louvre murder case, those
unforgettable few days when Miriam had been shaken with terror because she had maneuvered
Homer into the case." Accompanied by her, Evans is musing about a French ancestor,
previously "never mentioned... even to his intimates." He explains that his
surname Evansis not, it transpires, Welsh but Norman, from "the Baron de Vans, known
as Claude lOriginal, ...William the Conquerors boon and bottle
Homer and Miriam witness a scuffle among the stevedores, an apparently short-lived
challenge by one "Godo the Whack" to the authority of his gangleader, le Singe
of Hugger-Mugger in the Louvre:
Miriam could find nothing criminal in [the Singes] face, no marks of the beast,
no coarseness. More and more she saw how alike were the Singe and Evans, with the same
blue eyes, broad forehead, open smile, strong hand and... poise..... Her mind harked back
to Homers absent-minded reference to the "Baron," and the Barons
numerous progeny, all related to him [Homer]. What could it mean? Did the man she
worshipped above all others, and the most relentless outlaw in France have a common
ancestor? Were the promptings of their blood essentially the same? Had their separate
cultures... a common denominator?
When Miriam mentions the resemblance to Evans, and that le Singe "acts the way you
act sometimes, when youre not enveloped in your celebrated calm," Evans starts,
but only because she has confirmed his own suspicion.2
Le Singe sees Evans and Miriam off on the train for Paris and as it pulls out is
observed making an inexplicable gesture. As they approach the gare St Lazare, one of their
compartment companions, the American violinist Anton Diluvio, reaches for his violin and
the Boxer dog of another American passenger, the Bostonian Leffingwell Baxter, springs at
Diluvio. Only Evanss "incredible swiftness" saves the priceless
instrument, and the owner restrains his dog. Evans broods about the strangeness of the
sequence of events: "I cant explain why Im so curious."3
As previously, intuiting incipient crime, Evans invites Inspector Frémont to accompany
him to Diluvios recital at the Salle Gaveau: "It may well be that more glory
will be thrust upon you." Frémont characteristically anticipates, "I can see
that Im in for something frightful." After beginning the recital, Diluvio
suddenly announces aloud that the violin he is holding is not his precious Guarnerius,
"The Sinner Without Malice" ("companion piece to Paganinis famous
Devil now kept under glass at Genoa"). Frémont learns that Baxter, seen
earlier that day entering the shop of a violin-seller and repairer, has now been found
dead in his hotel room, apparently poisoned. While Evans and the police are at the hotel,
the hotel manager expires under their noses.4
Amidst all this, Homer is still mulling over the earlier scuffle in Rouen - "a row
about a fiddle," le Singe had called it - and he concludes that the previous Roller
chief Barnabé Vieuxchamp must be behind it. When fingerprint clues in the Baxter murder
point to le Singe, Evans becomes convinced that both events are part of the same plot
against his look-alike. Trailing Godo the Whack, Miriam discovers Diluvios
Guarnerius and sends Baxters dog, now adopted by them, for Evans.5
With this added "clue," Frémont, unaware of Evanss suspicions that the
crime boss is being framed, arrests le Singe. Miriam mistakenly fears that "the
struggle she had dreaded, between Homer and the stalwart Norman gang leader, [was] about
to take place." Despite le Singes incarceration in the Prefecture, however,
more murders follow on the same pattern. Evanss intuition seems confirmed, but he
goes into "a phase of intense concentration.
I have blundered again, he said, after a pause." Soon "the
pressure inside his skull became unbearable, [and] he would press his hands hard against
his forehead, then try to relax again." In this anguished state, Evans solves both
the murders and the mystery of why they occurred. As to the former, a spider-bite is
common to all the corpses; the problem is that the offending tarantula is - despite its
reputation - not poisonous. The solution which comes to Evans is that the tarantulas
diet, crickets which have been fed on the mushroom Amantia verna, has
created the poison that Vieuxchamp, seeking to regain his criminal empire, had employed.6
Evans now confronts le Singe:
"Good morning," said the Singe, in a level emotionless voice.
"What now? Has the Chief sent you around to pump me, or is this just a friendly
"I shall not ask questions" Evans said. "As your agent and, I
suspect, your distant relative, I wish to make my report."
"My relative! Quit your kidding," the Singe said. "And I have no
agents. I work alone."
For answer, Homer pulled some papers from his pocket.
"First, I want to show you the fingerprints your were supposed to have left
all over the room in which Leffingwell Baxter was killed.... I made a set of my own,
just for luck. Would you care to have a look at them?"...
"Strange," he said. "Almost alike That same whirligig near the
center, one large loop, another small one."
"And now for the prize exhibit," said Homer.... "I have the thumb
mark of one Claude lOriginal, the Baron de Vans...."
The Norman is, however, unimpressed - "if youre trying to get around me with
this family appeal, save your breath." Evans, "with the utmost good
nature," gives a bravura review of events from le Singes point-of-view, showing
that he had vicariously inhabited the mind of the intended victim, becoming his criminal
relatives alter ego. Thus Evans solved the mystery which le Singe himself had
not penetrated - Vieuxchamps master plan involving priceless violins, a
fingerprint-reproducing substance (useful for villainy), and much else besides the
leadership of the St Julien Rollers. Vieuxchamp is apprehended; Evans explains all.7
Even as Evans becomes more like le Singe, he offers le Singe the opportunity to become
more like him,
"Should you care for my friendship... drop around at the Dôme or at my apartment
in the rue Campagne Première. And I will try to teach you the secret of good living and
modify your passion for pointless exertion. If you find crime amusing, and what
intelligent man would not, had he courage, just possibly I can persuade you to indulge
your hobby in an amateur way.... You have all the money you need, you are loved by the
woman of your choice. You have brains, good health; everything, in short, except friends
and leisure and the knack of passing your time pleasantly. Good morning, coz, and... think
over what I have said."
Psychological secret-sharing isnt the end of it, however. As previously, Evans
feels his responsibility for the carnage. In the heat of pursuit, Miriam as in earlier
cases had picked off a few gangsters with her automatic - but "what is your slight
sally into manslaughter compared with mine," says Evans. Because Evans had divined
that villainy was afoot, Baxter, the hotel-keeper, and others had died. Vieuxchamp became
"convinced his colleagues had tried to doublecross him" and had lashed out.
Evans, Evans is the cause! The mystery solved, he must once again claim he will
"retire from detective work for the span of my natural life." The claim is a
psychological necessity, born in part of a reaction against his predicament. For if Homer
Evans is a Guarnerius among detectives, a Sinner Without Malice, he is a sinner
nonetheless, and his attempted redemption, in the next Evans story, will be by way of
embracing the destructive element.8
1 Mayhem in B-flat (New York: Collier Books, 1962),
13, 14, 13.
2 Ibid., 20, 22.
3 Ibid., 30.
4 Ibid., 35, 125.
5 Ibid., 20.
6 Ibid., 156, 200, 204.
7 Ibid., 156, 200, 204. Paul comically doubles the
Evans-Singe relationship in that of the forensic pathologist Toudoux and the gangster
Barnabé Vieuxchamp. The storys closing words are the funeral oration which Toudoux
pronounces over the guillotined Vieuxchamp at the Montparnasse cemetery: "Science
mourns not only her distinguished sons but also her most wayward children.... Who knows
whether or not, some day, Amanitalycosine may not be put to exalted use in the service of
humanity? Already, by dissolving it in snake oil, I have hit upon a salve that works
wonders with hives. I shall call it Barnabasol.... Farewell! My tears flow freely, mon
semblable, mon frère!" (254).
8 Ibid., 224, 242, 250, 224.