Elevated Fiction

Novels featuring the elevator car and other system components

In a previous article, “Just for Kids” (ELEVATOR WORLD, October 2007), I explored the use of elevators in children’s literature. This month’s article also concerns the “literary elevator”; however, the focus has been shifted to adult fiction as represented by detective and suspense novels in which authors used the elevator as a primary setting. In two of the three books selected for this article, this use extended beyond the car to include the shaft, pit and machine room, while the third book placed its emphasis on a feature often overlooked in elevator history – the operator.

Fatal Descent (1939)

Written by Englishman John Rhode (the pen name of Cecil John Charles Street [1884-1964]) and American Carter Dickson (the pen name of John Dickson Carr [1906-1977]), this book was published simultaneously in the U.S. (Fatal Descent) and England (Drop to His Death). The copy reviewed for this article was the 1947 Popular Library paperback edition, which featured a drawing on the cover depicting a knife-wielding hand cutting an elevator cable. This stylized image, of course, was not intended as a literal representation of an elevator, nor, in fact, did it have anything to do with the plot. This detective story follows the well-known pattern of the “locked-room mystery,” in which the elevator car served as the locked room: when the private elevator of a successful publishing-house owner arrives at the ground floor of his building, he is found inside alone and dead, having been shot to death, with no gun in sight.

The elevator was characterized in the novel as “automatic, private and personal” and was accessed at the lobby by a small bronze door that “instead of being a double folding door, was a single door on hinges. An oblong glass panel in the door showed an elevator shaft beyond.” Similar but less-ornate doors provided access to the elevator on the upper floors. The hinged doors were designed such that they could not be opened unless the car was present at a landing. According to the building’s “mechanic,” who was asked to assist the detective in his investigation, the edge of the car “slides into a kind of ratchet along the side, and is held there. Until it’s held there, until the thing stops, the connection can’t be established and the door won’t open.” The mechanic further reported, “A good many elevators, you know, have a folding steel grating inside the door. That’s an additional precaution. If you open or try to fiddle with the grating, the elevator stops. In some parts of London they’re required by law.” However, he noted the building’s owner disliked folding gates, claiming, “they got in his way”; thus, they were not employed on his private elevator.

The elevator car was surprisingly large – it was described as being 6 ft. wide, 6 ft. deep and 8 ft. high with “iron walls. . . painted to imitate bronze” and a “gray rubber floor.” The car featured four “tiny electric lights” (one in each corner) controlled by a light switch in the car, which was also illuminated by an 18-sq.-in. skylight. The car was controlled by a vertical row of seven red buttons labeled “Ground,” “1,” “2,” “3,” “4,” “5” and “Stop.” According to the mechanic, the “Stop” button was used to “correct” mistakes:

“Suppose you get in, intending to go to the third floor. By mistake you press the button for the second floor, and the elevator starts. You press the Stop button. It immediately arrests the elevator. You then press the button you really wanted and go on.”

The car also included a device that served as redundant door safety. Again, as described by the mechanic: “The weight of anybody standing on the floor of the elevator – anything over 2 stone – establishes an electrical connection that locks the doors.” (Note: 1 stone equals 14 lb.) Additional information provided by the mechanic concerned the machine room, referred to as a “wheelhouse,” which contained an electric drum machine. For general maintenance purposes, it was possible to “go up to the wheelhouse, throw the switch there, and cut off the current. Then, of course, any door will open.” If needed, the elevator could be moved while the power was off by using “a hand windlass in the wheelhouse. The counterweights are so delicately balanced that it’s as easy as moving a bucket up and down a well.”

This detailed information was supplemented by descriptions of the pit, elevator rides taken by the detective and his assistant, and an account of an elevator “accident” caused by someone who had weakened the cables with a welding torch. While a few of the technical details are slightly odd, the authors presented the elevator in a believable manner, and it was consistently used throughout the book as a primary setting for action. The book’s popularity was indicated by the mass-market paperback edition (1947), as well as its translation into French (1951), Japanese (1958) and Italian (1990).

The Lift and the Drop (1948)

In The Lift and the Drop, G.V. Galwey (1912-1996) presented readers with an equally well-known formula in that the story opens with the murder: the reader immediately discovers how it was done; the mystery is, of course, who did it. The copy reviewed for this article was the 1951 Penguin Books paperback edition. Once again, the setting is a large publishing company, and, as the first book, this mystery also utilizes the elevator in an effective manner. The murderer placed “explosive cutters rigged up specially for electrical firing” on the hoisting cables and linked the charges to a “selenium cell” (an early type of light-sensitive switch) such that when the car neared the top of the shaft, the cutters “chopped all five wires at once,” and the car plunged down the shaft and crashed into the pit. Galwey drew on his experiences in the British Navy during World War II in his choice of explosives – the “cutters” were also described as “minesweeping cutters,” devices designed to cut underwater mine cables.

Included in the evidence examined by the detective was a collection of technical articles on elevator design and safety. This collection featured an article that contained a “detailed account of the crash of an aircraft into [the] Empire State Building. . . . It had brought one of the elevators falling like a stone hundreds of feet and yet there had been survivors from that crash.” This, of course, referred to an actual historical event: in July 1945, a B-25 bomber crashed into the Empire State Building. Further evidence that the author did research prior to writing his book is found in a brief introduction, in which he claimed, “Mr. Challen of Waygood Otis Ltd. has explained to me how difficult it is to drop a lift with any degree of punctuality or certainty.” Galwey goes on to say, tongue-in-cheek: “I think we have overcome all the difficulties with the method described here, but we cannot accept liability for any disappointment experienced by intending murders who try our technique.” Interestingly, a significant feature omitted by Galwey was the car safety, which would have engaged as the car fell down the shaft, thus preventing the murder. Finally, in reference to the elevator’s builder – “Safety Elevation Ltd.” – the detective noted the company described itself as “makers of lifts and escalators,” which caused him to ask, “Why don’t they call them moving stairs?”

Night Man (1951)

Night Man was co-authored by Lucille Fletcher (1912-2000), who wrote the story as a screenplay, and Allan Ullman (1909-1982), who turned her screenplay into a novel. Fletcher is best known for the screenplay Sorry, Wrong Number, which Allan Ullman also turned into a novel. The editions reviewed for this article include hardback (1951) and two mass-market paperbacks. The story concerns a woman who lived on the 23rd floor of her apartment building and the events that unfolded after a new elevator operator – hired to work the night shift – appeared on the scene. Described on the hardback cover as “An adventure in suspense,” a statement found inside the dust jacket further exclaimed, “When she saw the new night elevator man, SHE GOT THE SHOCK OF HER LIFE!” The “shock” occurred because the woman suspected the “night man” was the person who had been convicted of murdering her mother and was supposed to be in prison.

In this book, the elevator serves as a primary means of gradually building suspense due to the woman’s increasing feelings of helplessness at her lack of control and confinement as the operator transports her to and from her apartment. In setting these scenes, the authors provided excellent descriptive accounts of the elevator’s operation, which included the following passage:

As she walked to the elevator, she could make out the arrow of the indicator turning slowly. . . although she knew it wasn’t necessary she pressed the elevator button for an instant and heard the answering buzz of the register in the descending car. The indicator was settling from 4 to 3 to 2, and she could hear the whoosh of rushing air in the shaft and the rattle of a chain swinging free. Then a light showed through the ground glass door; there was a clucking sound of switches as the car slowed and stopped; and the inner gate was drawn back smartly. The door before which she stood rolled open.

The car and shaft were not equipped with automatic doors – the operator had to open and close both doors for passengers – and the car interior was described as lined with mirrors.

As was the case with the previous books, the elevator is effectively used as a setting that, in this case, both opens the story and facilitates its dramatic conclusion. The success of the book is indicated in its selection by the Detective Book Club as its book of the month (July 1951), subsequent mass-market paperback editions (1953 and 1959) and its publication in French (1951) and German (1969). An interesting feature of its publication are the various book covers, all of which depict the woman and the night man in or near the car and which become increasingly provocative as time passed. (Compare the 1951, 1953 and 1959 covers.) The hardback edition also used a somewhat novel way of indicating the start of a new chapter: a series of vertical dots running along the right side of the chapter title pages (from 1 to 23) served as “floor markers,” and the chapter numbers gradually “climbed” up the page.

Discerning readers will have noticed I did not reveal key information regarding the plots of these books. The reason is simple: I did not want to give away the endings. For EW readers who enjoy classic detective novels, I heartily recommend Fatal Descent and The Lift and the Drop, both readily available as used books. Night Man, while interesting, is more a psychological thriller than mystery and is, perhaps, more dated in its storytelling than the others.

Dr. Lee Gray, professor of Architectural History and senior associate dean of the College of Arts + Architecture at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, has written more than 200 monthly articles on the history of vertical transportation (VT) for ELEVATOR WORLD since 2003. He is also the author of From Ascending Rooms to Express Elevators: A History of the Passenger Elevator in the 19th Century. He also serves as curator of theelevatormuseum.org, created by Elevator World, Inc.

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