The Great Mail Robbery
by Clarence Budington Kelland

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

The Saturday Evening Post, 4 November 1950 - 23 December 1950

Harper: New York, 1950
250 pages

September 2011

The hidden movements of mail

My father relished this mystery, The Great Mail Robbery by Clarence Budington Kelland, although he was not often enticed into reading novels: for book-length works he preferred history. Wilfred R. Franson knew the Post Office well from working in the The Eugene Post Office, and from taking a thoughtful delight in processes, especially those involving transportation. Postal communications in the pre-electronic, pre-email age depended entirely on physical transport of handwritten or typed or printed media — and of course packages, the parcel post. In 1950 most mail moved by rail and truck; air mail was a small percentage and more expensive. My father was a life-long fan of road and rail and air vehicles, and worked in all these fields. As a newsletter publisher, he also saw some of the business side of mail handling.

So we have praise for The Great Mail Robbery from someone with insider and multidisciplinary viewpoints. I remember my father telling me about the story more than once, when I was much too young to read it myself. Having read it several times as a grown-up, I can see why he admired Kelland's attention to detail at all levels of postal operation. For most of us see only the mail carrier walking or driving his route, or the postal clerks behind their counter, but legions of people work at diverse jobs around the clock, every day of the year. Between the curbside drop-off box and the recipient's mailbox is a zigzag and sometimes surprising trip.

A postal procedural

Kelland's hero is Will Scarlet, a postal inspector: essentially an internal criminal investigator, a specialized federal police detective. The case at hand involves a small New York City dressmakers' shop which has reported several missing parcels, mailed by them on different days to different destinations. From this modest beginning Kelland develops what we may call a postal procedural, ranging not only through the inner workings of the Post Office, but into different strata of society and crime in New York.

The characterization is Kelland-smooth, with interesting people in various degrees of compliance with the law. But Kelland really excels with one of the women of the dress shop, and with another who is a stage performer. These two not only are vivid beyond anticipation, but have surprising depths and turns in their characters.

As a detective story and as a romance The Great Mail Robbery works well, but what raises it beyond the ordinary and keeps me coming back for re-reading are those two unpredictable women, and the engaging postal procedural itself.


© 2011 Robert Wilfred Franson

Wilfred R. Franson's memoir of
The Eugene Post Office
Eugene, Oregon 1949-1956

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