Classic Crime: Blue Murder

Today’s Classic Crime tale is by Wilbur Daniel Steele, a once highly regarded, but now sadly forgotten American author. It’s a lovely, atmospheric tale of death and sibling rivalry, called “Blue Murder.”

Wilbur Daniel Steele
Wilbur Daniel Steele (1886-1970).
Source: Wikimedia.

The Bluedge brothers all live and work within the valley called Mill Crossing. The oldest, Jim, runs the farm; Frank runs the store, and Camden is a blacksmith. The three were once rivals for the woman who is now Jim’s wife, Blossom. As the story begins, Frank, Blossom, and Camden are waiting for Jim to come home with his latest purchase: a stud horse from Wyoming, with the ominous name of Blue Murder. The horse, apparently, came suspiciously cheap. Rumor says the horse lives up to his name. Could it be that the rumors are true?

“Blue Murder” was one of Tony Hillerman’s selections for his Best American Mystery Stories of the Century anthology, and it’s a great tale. I like how the complete solution doesn’t come until the very last line of the story.

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Revisiting Wilbur Daniel Steele

It is always hazardous to prophesy the future course of an admirable writer, but it is safe to say that the rich, human embodiment of the stories collected in this volume assure them a permanence in our literature for their imaginative reality, their warm color, and their finality of artistic execution. Almost without exception they represent the best that is being accomplished in America today by a literary artist.

— Edward J. O’Brien, Introduction to Land’s End and Other Stories (1918)

When I first read Wilbur Daniel Steele’s 1919 short story, “Out of Exile,” it struck me right away. The language was beautiful, the imagery evocative. I loved it. I felt immediately drawn into this New England fishing community, on the fictional Urkey Island, as the love triangle at the heart of the story unfolded through the filter of the narrator’s growing up and coming-of-age. And although the story was not in any way supernatural, somehow it felt like a ghost story. And that, of course, is a plus, as far as I’m concerned. I wondered: who is this Wilbur Daniel Steele? Did he write any actual ghost stories? What are they like?

Wilbur Daniel Steele
Wilbur Daniel Steele, circa 1918. Source: Wikimedia

He’s quite forgotten today (sorry, Mr. O’Brien!), but Wilbur Daniel Steele was one of the most popular American short story writers of the early twentieth century. He wrote both for prestigious fiction magazines and for women’s magazines. Between 1915 and 1933, at least ten of Steele’s stories appeared in Edward J. O’Brien’s annual Best [American] Short Stories of the Year. Over the same period, eleven of his stories were O. Henry prize selections: one more than John Cheever, one fewer than Alice Munro and William Faulkner.

After about 1933, he seems to have published fewer short stories, and these largely in women’s magazines. He had a revival of sorts around the 1950s, when some of his earlier work was republished in crime fiction magazines like Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. After that, he dropped off the radar. Steele passed away in 1970, at the age of 84.

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