The Clock Strikes Thirteen (1954) by Herbert Brean
Reviewed by Barry Ergang
"When And Then There Were None meets The Satan Bug"--that's the kind of cover blurb this fast-paced whodunit might have received except that, although it post-dates the former, it pre-dates the latter.
Freelance journalist/photographer Reynold Frame, hero of several other Brean titles, gets a middle-of-the-night call from a magazine editor telling him to be ready to board a plane for Maine at 10 a.m. Frame is excited because, although the story is being written by someone else, he hopes the assignment will enable him to prove his photographic skills. He's replacing a photographer of Russian descent who doesn't have the security clearance necessary for the job.
Upon landing in Portland, Maine, Frame is met by Army Major Harry Geddes and driven to the town of Pethwick. From there they board a boat manned by elderly lobsterman Jonas Kilgore, who takes them twenty-four miles offshore to Kilgore Island, a desolate rock in the Atlantic he used to own.
The island is presently owned by Dr. North Wayland, a bacteriologist--and skilled surgeon before a personal tragedy deprived him of the necessary steadiness--who worked for the government at Fort Detrick in Maryland during WWII. Wayland bought the island to continue his researches privately, albeit with governmental security provided by Major Geddes.
Dropped off by Jonas at Kilgore Island, Frame meets Wayland, his research staff, the magazine writer, and Wayland's housekeeper and her peculiar son. After dinner, Wayland takes Frame to visit his laboratory and show him what he'll be photographing. Everyone's curiosity is aroused because the scientist has been secretive about some work he's been doing on his own. They know only that it involves a biological warfare agent.
Leaving Frame in the lab, Wayland goes off to retrieve something he wants to show the photographer. A moment later Frame hears some sort of hubbub. When he investigates, he finds the scientist dead--stabbed--and with broken Petri dishes and bits of agar scattered around his body. Frame alerts the others, and Major Geddes decides he's the prime suspect.
What follows is both detective story and thriller, as Frame tries to determine the identity of the real murderer and the isolated group on the island try to survive in the wake of what might be an outbreak of a deadly biological agent set loose during the murder.
Though it lacks the impossible crimes of Brean's excellent Wilders Walk Away and the eerie atmospheric touches of Hardly A Man Is Now Alive, The Clock Strikes Thirteen is recommended to mystery readers who like their puzzles mixed with action and high-tension suspense.
Barry Ergang ©2007, 2012
Formerly the Managing Editor of Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine and First Senior Editor of Mysterical-E, winner of the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s 2007 Derringer Award in the Flash Fiction category, Barry Ergang’s written work has appeared in numerous publications, print and electronic. For links to material available online, and fiction available for e-readers, see Barry’s webpages. Remember, too, that he has books from his personal collection for sale at http://barryergangbooksforsale.yolasite.com/ He'll contribute 20% of the purchase price of the books to our fund, so please have a look at his lists, which have recently been added to in several categories.