Like many of the detective novels I've been reading, which tend to be about 80-110 years old, this is actually a series of related short stories. They are set in the small town of Tinkletown, and Anderson Crowe is the deputy marshal of the town, and also the deputy superintendent of the fire department, commissioner of the water works, and various other official positions he has managed to wrangle his way into. He is a very self-important man, prone to bluster and lies to aggrandize himself. He is, in short, an idiot, and on the rare occasions when he manages to be in the right place at the right time it is purely by accident.
The odd thing about Anderson Crow is that, even though the townspeople seem to see right through him, they are oddly fond of him nonetheless. He is especially assisted by Harry Squires, who runs the newspaper, and Alf Reesling, in spite of Anderson believing that Alf is the town drunk. As Alf says:
"Look at me. I ain't had a drink in twenty-three years, and what good does it do me? Every time a stranger comes to town people point at me an' say, "There goes the town drunkard." Oh, I've heerd 'em. I ain't deef. An' besides, ain't they always preachin' at me an' about me at the Methodist an' Congregational churches? Aren't they always tellin' the young boys that they got to be careful er they'll be like Alf Reesling? An' what's it all come from? Comes from the three times I got drunk back in the fall of 'ninety-three when my cousin was here from Albany fer a visit. I had to entertain him, didn't I? An' there wan't any other way to do it in this yerk-water town, was there? An' ever since then the windbags in this town have been prayin' fer me an' pityin' my poor wife."
The tone of these stories is humorous, unlike most of the detective novels I've been reading of the same vintage. McCutcheon is well aware that Crow is an idiot, and pokes fun at many of the townspeople, too. That said, his idea of what is humorous does not always align with modern taste. For instance, three of the stories involve people's dogs getting killed, which McCutcheon seems to believe is funny but doesn't sit terribly well with me. Or the story in which a man beats his wife and finds that he's instantly become more attractive to many of the other women of the town. It's eventually explained that, after the first time, he never actually hurt her, and she was playing along at having a seemingly foul-tempered, dangerous husband so the other women would envy her, but really--what the hell? Likewise the old farmer who has buried four wives through poverty and grinding hard labor is treated as light and funny, as he complains that he's now got five mothers-in-law, poor him! Urk. Or the story in which the young men of the town are all suddenly anxious to get married so that they will not be drafted to die horribly in the trenches of France, and Anderson decides he has to put a stop to it -- I didn't actually find that particularly humorous, either.
I realize that tastes change, and that's one of the reasons I read these books -- they are fascinating cultural documents about a very, very different time. That said, humor is hard to do well, and for the most part this book was very unfunny to this modern reader.