Elizabeth Dean | Murder Is a Collector's Item
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
Death Takes a Bow (1943) (Chapters 1, 2, first half of 3)
Murder in a Hurry (1950)
Foggy, Foggy Death (1950) (Chapters: end of 1, 2, start of 3, 5, 7, 9)
Death by Association (1952) (Chapters 1, 2, 3, start of 4, end of 5, first half of 10)
Voyage into Violence (1956)
Accent on Murder (1958) (Chapters 1, 2, start of 3, second half of 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, start of 12)
Murder Has Its Points (1961)
Pam and Jerry North short stories
Sailor, Take Warning! (1943 - 1944)
There Was a Crooked Man (1945)
Ghost of a Chance (1945, 1947) (Chapters 1 - 8)
Murder in Any Language (1948)
Haila and Jeff Troy novellas
The above is not a complete list of the authors' works. Rather, it consists of my picks of their best tales, the ones I enjoyed reading, and recommend to others.
Commentary on Frances and Richard Lockridge:
Mr. and Mrs. North books have several features of the Van Dine tradition:
The opening details the landscape around the tourist camp in the countryside. We also get looks at the simple-but-interesting interior architectural layouts of some of the cabins. Architecture and landscape are prominent in much Golden Age mystery fiction. These architectural/landscape features in Murder Out of Turn are pleasing in themselves - but they wind up playing no role in the mystery plot.
But after this, the killings start - and the murder mystery as a whole is not much good: grim and with killings that are too gruesome. The puzzle plot has a few good features, but mainly early on in the book. The solution at the finale is not too creative.
Murder Weapon. One of the mystery plot's better ideas is the identity of the murder weapon. The weapon is missing, but is eventually found. SPOILERS. Its identity affects some earlier reasoning in unexpected ways (Chapters: last part of 4, 8, second half of 9).
Perhaps oddly, the discovery of the weapon is NOT linked to detective reasoning. It is an accidental by-product of a police search for something else. The identity of the weapon was indeed previously suggested by fair-play clues, that could have been used by the police (or the reader) to figure out what the weapon is. But the police fail to follow up on these clues.
Mystery Plot: Reasoning. Weigand does some good detective reasoning (Chapter 6). SPOILERS:
Murder Out of Turn also marks the first appearance of New York State Trooper M. L. Heimrich. He is mainly depicted simply as a conventional homicide investigator here, thoughtful, but also a bit gruff and mildly tough. There is nothing wrong with this approach. But it is not especially noteworthy, either.
We do learn some background information on Heimrich's organization the B.C.I. (Bureau of Criminal Identification) of the New York State Police (Chapter 4). This is interesting. And I don't recall it being explained much in Heimrich's later cases.
Heimrich and Weigand are doubles of each other. Both:
M. L. Heimrich might not have been intended as a series character at this point. It would be seven years before he starred in the first of his series of solo novels Think of Death (1947). By contrast, one suspects that Dorian was consciously introduced with the premise that she would be a romantic partner for Weigand.
Hierarchies. There are definite differences in the two men Heimrich and Weigand. Heimrich keeps getting seen as part of a hierarchy, giving orders to other State Troopers. Weigand, who is outside of his turf, mainly acts on his own, treating the Norths and Heimrich as equals. This anticipates the criticism of hierarchy in Accent on Murder: a book that contrasts characters within hierarchy to those who stand outside it.
Motorcycles. The State Police use motorcycles. The first State Trooper to arrive at the crime scene rides one (Chapter 4). The Trooper who uses it takes part in a discussion that defines the organization and capabilities of the State Police.
The film The Wild One (1953) redefined motorcycles as symbols of Rebellion. It largely erased two earlier points-of-view on motorcycles from public consciousness:
Advertising. Some of the characters work in the advertising business in New York City. This business is seen somewhat skeptically, a point of view that returns more briefly in Death and the Gentle Bull.
The skepticism about advertising is not limited to the ad agencies themselves, but extends to the businesses that employ the ad agencies (last part of Chapter 13).
Both the ad agencies, and the attitudes of the businesses that employ them, help give rise to one of the main possible motives for the murder in Murder Out of Turn.
The Start of the Mystery. Some opening sections tell a decent "start of a mystery story":
The fancy restaurant locale has appeal. The staffers are nice characters, with individual personalities. Unfortunately, they and the restaurant disappear from the novel after this opening. The restaurant reminds one of the cruise ship in Voyage into Violence. Both are refined, upbeat venues that have staff and serve food and drinks. And like other Lockridge books, men are in bright costumes:
The older generation of the family uses its money to interfere with the personal lives of the younger generation. This anticipates the generational conflict in Death and the Gentle Bull.
Mystery Plot. SPOILERS. The authors are in there trying, conscientiously coming up with a mystery puzzle plot:
Jewish Characters. There are some pleasant vignettes, featuring sympathetic Jewish characters: taxi driver Max Fineberg (Chapter 1), Detective Stein (Chapters 7, 10). These have little to do with the mystery plot. But sympathetic portraits of minorities are always welcome. And in the bad year of 1941, with Hitler on the rampage, positive portraits of Jews are doubly welcome. It is good to see the authors standing up for their convictions.
Similarly, the heroine's sympathetic boss Isaac Bernstein in Death by Association is Jewish.
One thing that enhances the Lockridges' Jewish characters: they come alive as people. They seem interesting and vivid. They succeed as fiction, as actual characters that help create a fictional world.
Death on the Aisle (1942) is another Lockridge theater novel. While Death of an Angel mainly takes place among the off-stage lives of theater people, observing their contract negotiations and theatrical parties, Death on the Aisle is set in the theater itself, during the rehearsals of a new play. It was published in the same year as another theater novel, Helen McCloy's Cue for Murder (1942), although the Lockridge book seems to be earlier. Both books focus on the entrances and exits of various actors during a play, with much about alibis, time tables, and positions in the theater at the time of the murder.
The theater background is also partially present in Death Takes a Bow (1943), which deals with the lecture circuit and not plays. Still, this subject involves public performances, and has a cast of literati, so it has much in common with the theater books.
Architecture. Death of a Tall Man has one of the more detailed architectural layouts of any Lockridge book. The opening crime takes place at a doctor's office. We get a floor plan of the office. And the movements of the characters throughout the day of the murder are carefully specified at all times in relation to this floor plan (Chapter 1).
MILD SPOILER. Like many mysteries with floor plans, the solution of the crime turns out to be linked with the movement of the characters through the architecture (Chapter 11). It's an integral part of the mystery puzzle and murder method.
The series of examining rooms at the office, remind one oddly of the rows of animal quarters in later Lockridge books:
Institutions. The doctor regularly does compensation cases for insurance companies: checking men who might have eye problems for which corporations and their insurance companies might be responsible (Chapter 1). This gives the doctor a connection to institutions: in this case, the insurance companies.
Characters in A Pinch of Poison also have a connection to an institution: the adoption agency Foundation. Such institutional links likely formed parts of many Americans' lives in that era.
Eyes. SPOILERS. Eye problems and medical conditions also play a role in A Pinch of Poison and "Pattern for Murder".
Mystery Subplot: Combat Fatigue. SPOILERS. One of the characters, Dan Gordon, is discovered to be suffering from "combat fatigue": what today is called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is caused by his service in World War II, just over. First we see his behavior (opening section of Chapter 1); then Bill Weigand deduces his condition (middle of Chapter 5). The book treats this as a mystery subplot: figuring out what is going on with the character. Later on, we get a medical history (near the end of Chapter 6).
I am of two minds of the treatment of PTSD in Death of a Tall Man. It occurs in a sympathetic character, and seems partly intended to draw attention to PTSD as a serious issue. But it also helps make that character seem like a suspect: something that might be offensive.
Death of a Tall Man goes all out to make Dan Gordon a sympathetic character. He is young, tall, slender, from a wealthy New England WASP family, a Harvard graduate with a distinguished war service record, and a straight white male. It is hard to imagine what else they could have done to make him more socially prestigious in 1946. One suspects that Death of a Tall Man might be trying to point out that PTSD can affect all classes of society, even the most powerful and high level. It also likely is suggesting that PTSD can affect sympathetic people.
Dan Gordon is also the novel's Handsome Young Lover: a man whose engagement to the Young Heroine is threatened by the murder. Such Young Lovers whose future is clouded by a murder mystery were widespread in Golden Age mystery fiction.
Heimrich. Heimrich of the New York State Police returns, after his debut in the North novel Murder Out of Turn (1940-1941). He will soon have his own, long-running series of books. His appearance in Death of a Tall Man is just a brief cameo (end of Chapter 5). It doesn't add much to our understanding of the character.
Police Detective. Almost all the detective work in Murder in a Hurry is done by police Lieutenant Bill Weigand. The Norths are highly present as colorful characters, but they don't do much to solve the mystery.
Detective Work: Links to Rex Stout. Murder in a Hurry bears similarities to Rex Stout's tales of detective Nero Wolfe, another writer like the Lockridges who takes part in Van Dine school traditions. The links are especially strong in the detective methods used:
Architecture and Cityscape. The opening, describing out-of-the-way West Kepp Street, is both funny, and an example of the Golden Age interest in cityscape. Manhattan cityscapes appear in Van Dine, in his The Bishop Murder Case (1928), and in such Van Dine School writers as Rex Stout's novella "Method Three for Murder" (1960), and Aaron Marc Stein's A Dirty Way To Die (1955).
The animal pens in the pet store are architectural features. They are simple - but they give an architectural dimension to the events that unfold in them.
The events in the mansion are also staged against architectural backgrounds.
Theater. Murder in a Hurry is not primarily a theater novel. But it has a fine set-piece dealing with an assault on-stage (Chapters 9, 10). Like Death on the Aisle and Helen McCloy's Cue for Murder, this takes place during a production of a play. As in Cue for Murder, we see both what the play looks like to the audience, and a backstage view behind the set.
The theater section includes a hilarious spoof of British thrillers in general, and Emlyn Williams' play Night Must Fall (1935) in particular. The episode Lucille Is 40 (1963) of the TV series Car 54, Where Are You? also contains a clever Night Must Fall parody. There is something about Night Must Fall and its over-the-top imagery that invites burlesque.
The Rich. The wealthy family in Murder in a Hurry is higher in social class than the upper middle class professionals that often appear in the North mysteries. This family is so rich it does not need to work for a living - while the North novels tend to focus on people who work, albeit in upper middle class jobs. The family lives in Sutton Place: a Manhattan neighborhood that has symbolized upper class privilege and the class warfare practiced by the rich, ever since Sidney Kingsley's play Dead End (1935).
Murder in a Hurry has a field day satirizing rich dowager Barbara Whiteside, a woman who uses her status to object to everything. The book's satire is simple in technique, but hilarious and startlingly effective.
The Artist. The artist heroine works as an illustrator, in an era when illustration was a hugely prestigious job. It was a profession conspicuous to most Americans, because magazines and book jackets spread illustration throughout the country. Helen Reilly's The Dead Can Tell (1940) also has an illustrator heroine. The heroine of the Lockridges' Death by Association is a commercial artist who does paintings for ad agencies.
As a worker in a genteel New York City profession, the illustrator is a bit more typical of the characters in the North books than are the rich family. She is conspicuously more middle class.
Quite a few grim books and films deal with serious social problems. That is not the case with Dead as a Dinosaur. It seems to be nonpolitical and with little to say about society. It is simply a sad tale about a decent old man who is first persecuted, then murdered. I certainly feel sorry for this guy. But reading about his life is unpleasant.
McCarthy?. Perhaps there is a hidden social allegory in Dead as a Dinosaur. The attacks on the man serve to destroy his reputation. This perhaps evokes the McCarthy era, in which people could suddenly find their reputation under attack. However, I greatly prefer the Lockridges' Death by Association (1952) from the same year, which is explicitly about the McCarthy era, and examines it in depth.
Dead as a Dinosaur has a newspaper headline that subtly pokes fun at McCarthy (end of Chapter 5).
Backgrounds: Museum, Publishing. Dead as a Dinosaur has two interlocking Backgrounds:
Sections of Dead as a Dinosaur dealing with these two Backgrounds: the paragraph starting Preson's meeting with Jerry in Chapter 1, first half of Chapter 2, Chapter 6, first half of Chapter 7, end of Chapter 8, first paragraph of Chapter 9. These sections are the best parts of Dead as a Dinosaur. These sections total only around 27 pages, in the hardback edition, so they are none too extensive.
These Background sections tend to be viewed through the eyes of Jerry North and/or Pam North. We get the Norths' views and perceptions, as well as a straightforward account of the facts. The Norths' views add a good deal to the Backgrounds.
The Backgrounds stress how outstanding Dr. Preson is as a scientist (Chapter 7) and as a writer (Chapter 1). This emphasis on Quality is interesting. We also learn that Dr. Agee is "efficient" as the museum's administrator (start of Chapter 7).
Museums run through the Van Dine School. So do looks at the intelligentsia, such as authors and publishing.
Animals: Mammals. Despite its title, Dead as a Dinosaur is not about dinosaurs or other reptiles. It is about mammals.
The Lockridges liked animals. Cats run through the Mr. and Mrs. North books. And other creatures pop up in the pet store in Murder in a Hurry and Death and the Gentle Bull.
All of these animals are mammals. Dead as a Dinosaur takes a related turn, looking at the prehistoric era of now extinct mammals. Dr. Orpheus Preson is a paleozoologist, and the author of a hauntingly eerie book about early mammals, The Days Before Man.
The account of Jerry North's first reading of The Days Before Man is vivid and memorable (middle of Chapter 2).
In Greek mythology, Orpheus was able to summon the animals of the forest through his beautiful music. So his name is appropriate for a mammalogy expert like Dr. Preson.
Architecture. The numerous shop-window-like display cases in the museum, each filled with stuffed animals (middle of Chapter 7), recall the animal pens in Murder in a Hurry and Death and the Gentle Bull.
The Past: A Negative View. The Norths criticize thinking about and learning about the Past:
The officers and crew of the ship are British. This allows some good-natured ribbing of their English attitudes. The ship's Captain is compared to a Noel Coward character. This recalls the satire on the British play in Murder in a Hurry. The Captain's British understatement is especially funny (middle of Chapter 3).
The officers are sharply uniformed. And sailing aboard are an American fraternal order, who also wear uniforms and maintain a chain of command. This allows an extensive comic look at uniforms and military-style discipline. It recalls Death and the Gentle Bull, where young Trooper Crowley enthusiastically embodies military-style discipline in his encounter with Police Captain Heimrich (start of Chapter 2).
Links to Death Takes a Bow. There are similar plot patterns in Death Takes a Bow (1943) and Voyage into Violence (1956). SPOILERS:
Characterization is good. Each character is given their own distinctive way of speaking. This is much harder to do than it looks.
The fog engulfing the countryside in the finale recalls Foggy, Foggy Death.
Detection. Most of the book's detection is done by either Pam North or Bill Weigand. Jerry North only appears sporadically, and Dorian Weigand hardly at all.
There are police procedural aspects. We see the police investigation of the crime in considerable - and interesting - detail. It is policeman Bill Weigand who solves the case at the end.
Trying to interpret what Lauren Payne said while she was under medication (Chapter 10), is a bit like a Dying Message mystery. Pam North makes a good point, about the mysterious person to whom Lauren Payne is referring (Chapter 10). Eventually the meaning of the statement is revealed (last part of Chapter 15).
The Opening. The novel opens with one of the Lockridges' patented parties. They have a gift for depicting such soirees.
The opening (Chapters 1-4) includes satire of the literary world. Gardner Willings is a spoof of Ernest Hemingway, then America's most famous author. Aspects of Willings' life are variants of Hemingway's biography, often amusing. The satire is sometimes acid, including suggestions that Hemingway might not actually be a Great Author, merely a writer of talent.
Gardner Willings mainly disappears from the novel after the opening. Likely the Lockridges thought it was appropriate to poke fun at Hemingway as a literary personality - but NOT to make him a major suspect in a murder mystery.
Much of it deals with alibis of the different characters; its plotting technique recalls that of the Realist school.
There is much medical detail in the book. Such intricate medical detail also served as an interesting element in the early chapters of Death Takes a Bow (1943).
We do learn that Pam North, although a sophisticated New Yorker today, was born in the Middle West and in what seems to be the middle class.
Mystery Plot. "Pattern for Murder" is a full-fledged whodunit mystery, complete with clues and puzzle plot.
The mystery plot in "Pattern for Murder" goes through a series of stages. At each stage, the sleuths reach a new, deeper understanding of the crime. This is creative plotting, and is impressive in a brief short story.
"Pattern for Murder" has links in subject matter and imagery with Murder in a Hurry, although their mystery plots are different. Both:
The Norths are the Lockridges' most famous sleuths. But there is lots of good material in the Heimrich novels and short stories too.
Hume. HIBK mysteries sometimes have a Mysterious Visitor, a stranger who no one knows who tries to contact the heroine's family. Everett Hume is a bit like such figures: he shows up out of the blue at the mansion, knows no one, and he is certainly mysterious: something Foggy, Foggy Death tells the reader right away.
But Hume differs from typical Mysterious Visitors:
But unlike some HIBK books, Foggy, Foggy Death does not prolong this non-mystery approach too long. Instead, it turns to mystery and crime. One of the novel's best passages shows the discovery of the crime and other mystery elements (last two pages of Chapter 1, Chapter 2, start of Chapter 3).
This section introduces no less than four different mystery situations, for the reader to puzzle over. This is plotting richness. Two of the mysteries are of possible crimes; two others involves mysterious people: Hume, Higgins.
This section does not solve any of its mysteries (although it comes to a small partial solution of the Lorry subplot). The mysteries are left open to be solved in later parts of the book.
Landscape. One of the best aspects of this "Discovery of the First Crime" episode is its use of landscape. The discovery is mainly set on the huge grounds of the mansion.
The landscape recalls a bit the country landscapes found in Helen Reilly. And like Reilly, this passage in Foggy, Foggy Death has vivid descriptive writing.
Discovery of the Second Crime. The episode with Higgins (Chapter 5) is a prelude, in plot and settings, to the episode where the heroine discovers the second crime (Chapter 7). Both episodes are absorbing, with lots of detail of plot and architectural setting.
The second crime contrasts with the first, being set indoors, inside the mansion. The mansion architecture plays a pleasant role in the storytelling of these chapters. SPOILERS. As occurs in a number of Lockridge works, the killing is linked to a staircase.
The architecture of the murder scene, stairs going down into a cellar room, recalls the steps to the basement "game room" in Helen Reilly's Dead for a Ducat (1939) (end of Chapter 6). In both novels, the rooms are in turn connected to other cellar rooms through doorways.
Higgins sneaks around the mansion from room to room, evading other people (Chapter 5). This recalls the way Helen Reilly's sleuth Inspector McKee sneaks around buildings in The Line-Up (1934).
Mythology. The heroine compares the grim police interrogation to sacrifices to the Minotaur (Chapter 4). Like the Orpheus reference in Dead as a Dinosaur, this cites a Greek Myth that involves the relationship between people and animals.
Higgins. Bill Higgins is one of the book's best characters. He is a (very) low level thief who breaks into closed-up summer cabins and pilfers nearly worthless objects. In an odd way, this makes him part of the sort of summer resort milieu found in other Lockridge books like Murder Out of Turn.
Foggy, Foggy Death pokes fun at Higgins' deluded ideas, which are "obviously" wrong - something apparent to the reader, but not to Higgins himself. And the book never endorses or rationalizes Higgins' criminal behavior. Despite all this, Higgins is an endearing and mainly sympathetic character, one who the reader likes.
The biographies of the two-bit Higgins (start of Chapter 5) and the wealthy matriarch Mrs. Bromwell (start of Chapter 2) subtly share a feature. Both are supremely indifferent to the state line separating New York and Connecticut, that bisects the estate. This is an odd echoing effect. It suggests that both are indifferent to the rule of law, represented by Heimrich, who works strictly for the New York State police. It also suggests that both are not well connected to human society, with Mrs. Bromwell thinking she is better than other people, and Higgins too poor and alienated to connect.
Higgins is explicitly worried that the police will kowtow to a rich person like Mrs. Bromwell, and persecute a poor man like him (start of Chapter 5). Higgins is steeped in self-pity, and perhaps this is just more of the same. But perhaps it is intended as a serious social criticism.
A Client Is Canceled is readable and has some mildly likable passages, but fails overall. It has an interesting hero and heroine - but most of the suspects are a banal and sometimes unpleasantly sordid group of business people. This sordidness leaves a bad taste. Such depressing topics are a rarity in Lockridge books.
The best parts of the book are:
Discovery of the First Crime. As in Foggy, Foggy Death, one of the best parts of A Client Is Canceled is the discovery of the first crime (Chapter 3). In both books:
Discovery of the Second Crime. As in Foggy, Foggy Death, the "discovery of the second murder" (Chapters 6, first part of 7) is also a good section. In Foggy, Foggy Death, the second crime takes place indoors. But in A Client Is Canceled the "second crime discovery" mainly takes place outdoors. It too uses landscape creatively.
Motorcycles. The first State Troopers to arrive at the crime scene ride motorcycles (Chapter 3). This recalls Murder Out of Turn. Unlike that earlier novel, where the motorcop is implicitly criticized as authoritarian, in A Client Is Canceled these police are trying to convey a conspicuous presence, machismo and an "in charge" attitude. They put on what amounts to a theatrical performance.
Another State Trooper shows up at the second murder (first part of Chapter 7). He too tries to convey an image.
Mystery Plot. The undistinguished mystery plot of A Client Is Canceled is simple, and lacks ingenuity. But it is full of detail.
Dying Message. The second murder contains a Dying Message (set forth middle of Chapter 6, solved end of Chapter 11). This subplot is sound enough, without being brilliant.
The message shares aspects with the one in "Death on a Foggy Morning". Both Dying Messages:
Links to Death and the Gentle Bull. The suspects and their professions, anticipate those to come in Death and the Gentle Bull:
A Client Is Canceled takes place near Mt. Kisco in Westchester County, close to New York City. Both in 1951 and today, this is an upscale region. A Client Is Canceled calls the area suburban (middle of Chapter 6).
Hero and Heroine. The hero and heroine resembles the Norths in that they are a happily married, often comic couple from New York City. They are younger than the Norths, though, and far from being genius detectives. They also have their own distinctive personalities, quite different from the Norths.
As the couple are both writers, they also resemble the Lockridges themselves. Another autobiographical touch: the hero's first name is Orson - which is also Richard Lockridge's middle name.
Having the protagonists be part of the creative intelligentsia is in the Van Dine School tradition.
Science Fiction. The hero is a science fiction writer. This is quite unusual in traditional mystery fiction. In fact, science fiction is rarely mentioned.
Realistically, the hero shown as publishing in pulp science fiction magazines. And not making much money from these low-paying magazines. This is an accurate account of the lives of most science fiction writers of the era.
An interesting piece of science fiction imagery takes over the hero's perceptions, while he is drunk (middle of Chapter 2). This is not "abstraction": that is, the hero does not lose contact with reality and move into a private world. Instead, he still sees the world around him - but in an unusual way. It is a memorable bit of writing.
By contrast, the brief synopsis of one of the hero's science fiction stories (Chapter 1) is uninventive. It seems to imply that science fiction is mainly adventure tales about rocket ships. The more accurate idea that science fiction writers in 1951 regularly created detailed future worlds is absent from this story, and apparently from the Lockridges' understanding of science fiction.
I tend to think of American science fiction in the 1926-1966 era as forming a subculture. Science fiction writers socialized together, shared ideas, and had a worldview completely different from mainstream society around them. We don't get any sense of this in A Client Is Canceled. The hero is not shown having any science fiction writer friends. Nor does he have any subcultural intellectual interests.
Also, the heroine, the hero's wife, is shown as having ties to the New York mainstream literary establishment. In real life, I never heard of any science fiction writer having any such ties. Science fiction writers were a completely marginalized group.
However, none of this should be taken as a condemnation of A Client Is Canceled. On the contrary, I'm impressed that the Lockridges have recognized the existence of science fiction: something that their contemporaries largely failed to do. Also, it is good to get the Lockridges' contemporary 1951 perspective on science fiction.
A Client Is Canceled celebrates the hero for choosing to be a writer, and following his chosen path to publish in the pulps.
The sheer strange mix of the above elements is odd. I would never have expected a novel about the McCarthy era to be set among genteel upper middle class people on vacation in a luxury resort hotel in Key West. There is no connection between McCarthyism and Florida, nor does Death by Association suggest any such connection. McCarthyism and Florida are simply two wildly unrelated things that happen to co-exist in the same novel. If anything, Death by Association is surrealistic in juxtaposing startlingly different things side by side. This surrealist method was embodied in a quotation from the poet Lautréamont, "the meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine on the dissecting table".
In Murder in Tow (1943) by Christopher Hale, her series detective Michigan State Policeman Lt. French goes to St. Petersburg, Florida to convalesce. In Death by Association New York State Trooper Heimrich goes to Key West to convalesce. There was perhaps an influence.
Key West. The Key West tourist scenes anticipate the cruise to (pre-Castro) Havana in Voyage into Violence. Both are glamorous tropical areas. The most important Key West scene-paintings in Death by Association follow:
Architecture. Death by Association shows the Golden Age interest in architecture. This too is linked to the Key West setting. The heroine explores the hotel grounds, and finds a strange building (opening of Chapter 4). This is eventually explained (first half of Chapter 10).
A strange building of unusual shape also plays a role in the film Stavisky (Alain Resnais, 1974).
Comedy of Manners: Party and Restaurant Dinner. Some Lockridge novels open with either a party or a restaurant dinner; these lively scenes are some of the best in these tales. Death by Association early on (not quite at the actual opening) has both a party followed by a restaurant dinner! This sparkling, atmospheric scene in the best in the novel. The cocktail party in the hotel lounge comes first (second half of Chapter 2, start of Chapter 3); it segues into the dinner and dance at the hotel restaurant (rest of Chapter 3).
Detective Work: Off Stage. Detection in Death by Association is handled in a weird manner, differently from most mystery fiction. Heimrich and other detectives are NOT shown while doing their detective work. Instead, Heimrich shows up periodically, and gives the other characters and the reader a summary of the results of the detective work he has recently done. I found this approach annoying, and a poor substitute for actually seeing a detective at work.
In later Heimrich novels like Death and the Gentle Bull, Heimrich is a protagonist, and the reader follows him in detail while he does his detection. That is much better.
In Death by Association, Heimrich frequently closes his eyes while talking to other people. He also sometimes seems odd in his interactions with other characters. One guesses that all this is an attempt to convey "the eccentricities of a great sleuth". However, these behaviors simply make Heimrich seem neurotic and/or antisocial. One is glad that they were largely dropped in later novels, making Heimrich seem more normal.
Communism. Death by Association is both vigorously anti-Communist, depicting American Communism as an evil organization under the control of Stalin, AND opposed to the McCarthyist "witch hunts" of the early 1950's. In general, I think that this is an honorable position to take, and one that has worn well. Death by Association admirably does not try to oversimplify a complex situation, but presents the 1950's political arena as full of complex and varied activity.
The hero admiringly cites Arthur Schlesinger's book The Vital Center (1949). Schlesinger was a leader of a group of liberal Democrats, who were opposed to both Hitler and Stalin, and felt that democracy organized on liberal principles offered the best alternative. One suspects that the Lockridges shared Schlesinger's liberal Democratic, anti-Communist views.
Unfortunately, much of the political material in Death by Association is neither worked into good fiction, nor presented with originality of insight: something new. A pleasant exception on both counts: Heimrich's insistence (Chapter 2) that activities against Communists should be left to the police, rather than crusaders like McCarthy. This is original: its not a point I recall seeing in other writers. And it is meaningful as fiction: Heimrich is a policeman himself, and he is making a personal statement incorporating his own perspective and experience.
Liberal Victims?. One aspect of Death by Association I'm uncomfortable with. A character (and perhaps a second one) are non-Communist liberals who years before naively joined organizations or signed petitions that advocated seemingly liberal causes - only to have it revealed years later that such organizations were secretly Communist fronts. These characters get in big trouble when they are falsely accused of being Communists (second half of Chapter 8, later part of Chapter 9, later part of Chapter 12). (A similar character is the librarian heroine of the film Storm Center (Daniel Taradash, 1956), who also gets falsely accused.) I agree with the specific point: such liberals should not be accused of Communism, and not be harmed or attacked. Most people would agree.
But I also suspect that in real life such cases were fairly rare. Most of the Hollywood figures blacklisted in the era, were in fact either committed Communists or supporters of Communism, at least during some period of their lives. And physicist Robert Oppenheimer is also now seen today as a Communist supporter. These people were NOT liberals who naively joined front organizations or signed petitions. They were Communists.
Complicating my response: The introduction of this topic (second half of Chapter 8) is involving as fiction. The character comes alive, and her feelings and liberal political attitudes seem real. This scene works as fiction, even if it is dubious that such liberals were actually much persecuted in the real-life McCarthy era.
The Victim. The highly reprehensible victim Bronson Wells spent over twenty years in the Communist Party, then left and became a professional anti-Communist crusader. This allows Death by Association to target both Communists and McCarthyites, in the same unappetizing character.
Death by Association makes satiric points, by suggesting that people who had the brains and morals never to fall for Communism in the first place, might be more admirable guides to truth than ex-Communists like Bronson Wells. In the book's era, real-life ex-Communists like Whittaker Chambers and Arthur Koestler were treated by some as the fonts of all wisdom. Death by Association suggests lionizing such people is misguided.
While the victim is a looming presence throughout much of the book, his career is most clearly seen in certain episodes (Chapter 2, second half of Chapter 7).
The victim is introduced (Chapter 2) as "the lecturer, the author of books", and very famous. In this he recalls the famous author Victor Sproul in Death Takes a Bow (1943), who gets bumped off during a lecture appearance. Both men also resemble each other, in knowing and often revealing many other characters' secrets: thus giving motives for their murder. However, Bronson Wells is more political and controversial than Victor Sproul.
The Male Gaze. Death by Association comments on what was later dubbed "the male gaze": men looking at women as sex objects. The strip club scene (start of Chapter 6) suggests most men are really not that interested in looking at strippers, and pretend to be more interested in doing this than they actually feel. It also looks at the dismal future facing the women now working as strippers.
"Flair for Murder" (1965) will offer sidelights on "the male gaze", with a wife disturbed by her husband being more interested in looking at her, than he actually is in being with her or interacting with her. It's an unusual moment. And one designed to create an ominous feel. SPOILERS. It signals that something is wrong with both the husband and their marriage.
These Lockridge works were written before feminist film critic Laura Mulvey developed the concept of "the male gaze" in 1975.
Merton. We learn that M.L. Heimrich's first name is Merton (opening of Chapter 8). And he gets kidded about Merton of the Movies, a hit Broadway comedy of 1922, filmed in 1924, 1932 and 1947. In 1952 it was likely fairly famous, enough so that Heimrich might prefer going by his initials. Today, one suspects that most people won't see anything wrong with the name Merton.
Background: Raising Champion Cattle. The opening shows an upscale farm, where rich Society people raise a champion bull as an elite hobby (Chapters 1-3). This section has charm, and is the best part of the novel. We learn a lot about the bull, cattle raising and the farm.
Like Murder in a Hurry this novel has:
Mystery Plot. Death and the Gentle Bull conscientiously develops aspects of its mystery plot:
The authors are trying to show good craftsmanship and adherence to the paradigms of the puzzle plot mystery novel, by paying attention to such things as murder method and motive.
The howdunit and motive ideas are also linked to the novel's Background of cattle raising and the champion bull. This too shows conscientious craftsmanship.
Sleuths. Heimrich's young police assistant Trooper Ray Crowley is a good character. He does a good job with his detective concerns in his first scene (Chapter 2). Unfortunately, we don't see much of him in the rest of the book, apart from a brief look at him in civilian clothes (middle of Chapter 6).
Captain M. L. Heimrich is introduced reading the New York Times (start of Chapter 2). He is reading one of the nation's most responsible, informative newspapers, suggesting he is an intelligent man who tries to stay informed. And although he is stationed in an outlying area, he is interested in the big city of New York nearby. During this era Americans strongly admired newspapers, and respected the people who read them. We soon learn young Trooper Crowley also reads the New York Times: a link between the two men.
Detection: Directed Dialogues. Both Heimrich's scenes with Crowley (Chapter 2) and the veterinarian (Chapter 6), show Heimrich engaging with these men, pulling ideas out of them, making suggestions, and directing the evolution of the conversation. It is during these "directed dialogues" that key ideas about the case emerge. They show ideas building on each other, being developed out of earlier ideas and comments.
Both Crowley and the veterinarian have expert knowledge about both farming and the suspects' farm; Heimrich does not. He organizes and develops their knowledge, assembling it, drawing the men out. In the veterinarian's case, Heimrich use this knowledge he gets from the veterinarian, to get a new idea about how the murder was committed. This is an "idea built on previous ideas". Heimrich thus solves the problem of howdunit.
Characters. Few of the suspects rise above routine, standard types. They are uninteresting as people. They are also vaguely unpleasant: partly due to their sheer conventionality and conformism. One of the men works in Madison Avenue. Even by 1954, one suspects, this center of advertising had a reputation of embodying everything dubious about American business. As well as a conformity and superficial social polish, that had a dark edge.
The best character at the farm is the victim, who promptly gets killed off (end of Chapter 1). This woman is completely devoted to her farm and raising cattle. She is tough, ferocious, and drastically different from 1950's stereotypes of femininity. Such "horsey, outdoors women" sometimes show up in mystery fiction. They offer an alternative to standard ideas about gender and women's personalities.
Similarities of Death and the Gentle Bull to "Pattern for Murder":
Location. Like other Heimrich mysteries, Death and the Gentle Bull is set up the Hudson river from New York City. This is generally an upscale area. Real towns are mentioned:
The Town. Burnt Offering takes place in a small suburban town in Putnam County, New York. Burnt Offering concentrates on a portrait of the town, its buildings, landscapes, residents and financial transactions. This depiction is one of the main virtues of the book.
Burnt Offering is not what today is called a "cozy". This small town is full of corruption and mean-spirited fighting. It is NOT a cute, cozy fantasy of warm-hearted folks in an idyllic community. Burnt Offering is "clean": there is no racy or explicit material. But it is not a book for people with fantasies of how swell everything is in small-town America.
Burnt Offering appeared the year before Grace Metalious published her huge best-seller Peyton Place (1956). I've never read Peyton Place, but have seen the 1957 film version, which suggests that Burnt Offering and Peyton Place have a good deal in common with their settings. Both are laid in beautiful but corrupt small towns in the Northeast. Both explore social class. Both towns are divided into a small number of the rich, a larger group of middle class, and poor folks who live in a dumpy area on the "wrong side of town". A big difference between the two books: intrigue in Burnt Offering mainly concerns financial deals and secrets, whereas the goings-on in Peyton Place are often sexual. However, zoning controversies reflecting class conflicts appear in both books.
From the dates, it seems unlikely that either novel influenced the other. Burnt Offering came out around March 1955, long before Peyton Place was published. Conversely, the draft manuscript of Peyton Place was reportedly submitted to publishers in mid-1955, leaving little window of opportunity for it to be influenced by Burnt Offering.
McCarthyism. The Lockridges continue their negative depiction of McCarthyism, with a brief but pointed look at controversy at the local Public Library (last part of Chapter 2).
Alcohol. The Lockridges' books are full of liquor consumption, mainly treated as a fun, "normal" thing. Burnt Offering is different, in that the dark side of alcohol is explored, however briefly. The caricatured Miss Snively pokes fun at a temperance crusader. But more seriously, the look at young Asa's growing drinking problem (Chapter 3) offers a serious warning about the problems liquor can cause.
Asa is an endearing character. Another very young man, less comic, will appear in "Death on a Foggy Morning".
Small Business. Burnt Offering has a sympathetic look at a small garage and a young man who works there (Chapter 3). In some ways this is a look at working class life. But Burnt Offering recalls Ellery Queen, in that this "working class" locale is actually a very small business, owned and run by a man and his three sons. These people are not factory workers or other members of an industrial proletariat; they are business owners. Queen's The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932) in fact examines a small town garage, just like Burnt Offering.
A New Year's Eve party with ominous atmosphere and leading to murder previously appeared in the Mr. and Mrs. North The Dishonest Murderer (1949). These sinister New Year's celebrations differ in tone from the (much better) upbeat parties and restaurant dinners in other Lockridge books.
Initial Investigation. Let Dead Enough Alone has a good passage, in which Heimrich and Trooper Ray Crowley first investigate the crime (end of Chapter 3, Chapter 4, first part of Chapter 5) (pages 43-74 of the original hardback). This section shows some good plot developments, along with sound detective work. It is pleasantly detailed. It builds on a brief passage containing a clue, earlier in the novel (last part of Chapter 2) (pages 25-29).
Both the crime and the clues to its solution are grounded in technology. They bring Let Dead Enough Alone into the realm of Scientific Detection.
The investigation builds on the infrastructure of a country house. The Heimrich short story "Boy Kidnaped" (1957) also build on a county house's technical infrastructure, although the specific infrastructure looked at is different. See also the mysterious building which turns out to be technical, in Death by Association.
By the end of this section, the detectives and the reader know all about how the crime was committed, and the circumstances surrounding the crime. The only mystery left is who did the killing.
This section would have made a good short story, with an ending added that revealed who-done-it.
The Rest of the Mystery. There are no good clues to the identity of the killer. Only a few dubious, inconclusive psychological indications that the killer did it (Chapter 12). Even Heimnrich's girlfriend at the end tells him "you guessed." I agree. This "identity of the killer" puzzle is poor mystery plotting.
The murder is complicated by a gimmick, that was already old, stale and much-used by 1955. In fact, after the good "initial investigation", little in the mystery plot is creative or much good.
Detectives. The return of young trooper Ray Crowley is welcome. He does some good detective work. Crowley was previously seen in Death and the Gentle Bull. In both books, he starts the investigation, when he alerts Heimrich that what looks like a routine death is likely something more complex, possibly a murder. He has logical, intelligent reasons in both books.
Both books also emphasize Crowley developing a knowledge base about the locals that live in his district. This please his superior Heimrich, who regards such knowledge of individuals as essential for a state policeman.
Heimrich's appearance (middle of Chapter 4) echoes and slightly modifies his earlier description in Foggy, Foggy Death (middle of Chapter 3):
Food. As a side note, the references to food are of the incredibly bland fare favored by upper-middle-class Americans of the era. Today, people eat a much more diverse and flavorful menu.
Mystery Plot. BIG SPOILERS. The mystery plot of Accent on Murder is a simple variant on that of the earlier "Pattern for Murder". In both, someone kills because their hidden, unrespectable past might be exposed by the victim. In both, it is the accidental encounter at a party between the killer and the victim who knows about their past, that triggers the murder. In both, the victim is an innocuous, innocent woman who just happened to encounter the killer in the distant past.
This is a simple plot. It is fine for a brief short story like "Pattern for Murder". But it is brief and sketchy when stretched out over a whole novel like Accent on Murder. And the novel adds little of interest to the plot.
Because I'd read "Pattern for Murder", I picked up right away on the killer's motive in Accent on Murder. And it was also easy to figure out who-done-it. There were no surprises at all during the solution at the end.
Accent on Murder is also a bit unusual in that it has no mystery subplots. Its sole mystery elements consist of the killer and the killer's victims. And the murder method is just a routine shooting, lacking any howdunit or technological interest. These factors also make the mystery aspects of Accent on Murder skimpy.
New Technology. Young Navy officer Brady Wilkins is a specialist in advanced technology, used in weapon systems. We never learn exactly what these weapons are - but the book's hush-hush concealment of his exact work makes these mysterious weapon systems sound even creepier. These advanced weapons offer an ominous background to the events in Accent on Murder. They are referred to again and again throughout the course of the novel.
Helen Reilly has high tech weapons as a sinister background in her mystery novel The Canvas Dagger (1956). Reilly is a "serious" writer in tone, and the Lockridges are comic ones. But somehow the Lockridges' "comedy of manners" tone does not make this weapons background less ominous. Instead, both Reilly and the Lockridges offer an insistent warning that something ominous is going on, in America's interest in high tech weapons.
Both Reilly and the Lockridges set their books among upper class Americans living in chic countryside areas: Cape Cod in Reilly's The Canvas Dagger, Westchester County in New York in Accent on Murder. In both, the weapons are part of the work of a successful young husband of an upscale young wife. This look at socially proper members of the upper middle class also fails to reassure readers. It somehow makes what is going on with weapons and advanced tech seem even creepier and more ominous. Both books implicitly suggest that the strong forces of upper class conformity and worship of "success" are helping introduce sinister weapons into the modern world.
Class, and Rigid Thought. Class is explicitly introduced as an issue, with the old money rich waging war on the middle class (start of Chapter 3). Explicit mentions of class are fairly rare in literature. We also see the same group's (mis)treatment of the working class (Chapter 8).
A Navy admiral also shows prejudice against an officer who came from a "trade school" rather than Annapolis (Chapter 9). This sequence parallels treatment of social class elsewhere in Accent on Murder.
Both the old money rich like Craig (Chapter 8) and the Admiral (Chapter 9) are described as being rigid in thought, and seeing the world in unchanging eternal categories, hierarchies and facts. Such a need for certainty in thought is linked to sinister right-wing values, such as hierarchies of class or military rank.
By contrast Heimrich's aide Sergeant Forniss is repeatedly noted for his skepticism. He constantly has trouble believing what suspects say to him. Heimrich both agrees with and praises this point of view, regarding as proper in a police detective, and worries that it might be excessive. While the book doesn't make an explicit contrast, Forniss' skepticism is the opposite of the upper class characters' and the Admiral's rigid certainty. We don't learn much about Forniss' background, but Police Sergeants in books and films are often seen as being typical members of the working class.
Lt. Nelson, the officer from the trade school rather than Annapolis, is also shown as displaying extreme caution in believing what people say (second half of Chapter 6). Nelson too is a professional detective figure, being part of Navy Intelligence.
Race. Accent on Murder offers satiric comedy on the black-white race relations issue of the era. I don't want to spoil its comic turns. But it should be pointed out that this comedy has a backbone: there are two approving mentions of the NAACP (Chapters 1, 7).
Mystery Plot: The Dying Message. "Death on a Foggy Morning" is a Dying Message story. The Lockridges do well with this standard detection gambit.
The witness who hears the message is a retired English professor. He is thus an expert at understanding utterances. I don't recall this sort of expert witness in any other dying message tale.
Heimrich, through directed questioning, pulls expert knowledge out of this witness (the second session with the witness, in the second half of the story). This is a miniature version of the "directed dialogues" Heimrich does with experts in Death and the Gentle Bull.
Mystery Plot: The Killing. Heimrich gets insight into the killing, when he sees a countryside custom. This is a special activity, found in the upstate countryside, not known in the city. Similarly in "Boy Kidnaped", the tale is brought to a successful conclusion by knowing about machinery only used in the countryside.
Society. The professor is an example of the intelligentsia often found in the Van Dine School.
Issues of class are briefly raised. A deeper look at class will soon appear in Accent on Murder.
Mystery Plot. The search for the boy is related to a popular Golden Age kind of mystery puzzle: the intensive search by the detective for a hidden, concealed object. In "Boy Kidnaped", this "object" is the hidden boy. SPOILERS. "Boy Kidnaped" differs from searches for inanimate objects, in that the boy can do active things to aid in the search. This gives the plot in "Boy Kidnaped" an unusual structure.
SPOILERS. The criminal seems to be a different kind of person, from whom he actually is. This recalls Death Takes a Bow and Voyage into Violence.
SPOILERS. Heimrich's sense of hearing aids him in finding the solution, just as his sense of smell does in "Flair for Murder".
Architecture and Landscape. "Boy Kidnaped" includes both the Golden Age interest in landscape (in the tale's first half), and the related interest in architecture (in the second half). Both are pleasantly done. The architecture is especially interesting in its originality. It is also more closely linked to the mystery plot than the landscape in the first half.
The architectural unit recalls a bit the strange building in Death by Association (Chapters 4, 10). SPOILERS. Both turn out to be centers of technology. And both are interesting.
The architecture includes a ladder. This recalls a bit the staircases in the architecture in "Pattern for Murder" and Murder in a Hurry.
The landscape involves paths in the countryside. This recalls the landscape around the tourist camp in Murder Out of Turn.
Plot Structure. The story is not fair play - the reader does not have enough facts to deduce the murderer - nor do the police actually solve the crime through their detective work. Rather, the murderer makes a Fatal Mistake that trips him up at the end of the story. In this, the tale resembles the version of Inverted Crime story that was popular in both the pulps and the slicks in the US, ones in which some miscalculation by the killer exposes an otherwise perfect crime. This miscalculation is supposed to be ingenious, and is often based on science: both of these are true in the Lockridges' tale. Unlike these inverted tales, in "The Accusing Smoke" we do not see the crime committed or know who the killer is in advance - the story has the format of a standard whodunit mystery tale.
Society and Van Dine Traditions. All of this is mixed in with the sort of milieu we expect in a Van Dine school tale, with a setting among art world people living upper middle class lives near New York City.
The central characters and their relationships are also carefully defined.
The dog is well-defined as a personality too. He is seen as good-naturedly comic: something more typically associated with cats than with dogs in entertainment media.
The plot of "Flair for Murder" is built throughout on horticulture. It centers on growing plants, in the way raising animals was central to Murder in a Hurry and Death and the Gentle Bull. These are not wild plants: these are plants grown by humans, using specific horticulture techniques. The techniques play roles in the mystery plot.
Most of the story takes place outside, in a single large landscape comprised of two neighboring yards.
Heimrich does much detection using his sense of smell: something the story explicitly points out.
While "Flair for Murder" is a lively title, I can't figure out any connection between it and the actual story.
"Flair for Murder" appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (October 1965) and was anthologized in Ellery Queen's Crime Carousel (1966).
Commentary on Kelley Roos:
Like the Lockridges, Kelley Roos wrote about a husband and wife team of amateur detectives, as did Craig Rice, as well. Both couples' detectives live not just in New York City, but in Greenwich Village, then a haven for intellectuals and the chic.
There Was a Crooked Man was adapted as an episode of the TV drama anthology series Studio One (June 19, 1950) directed by Paul Nickell. It stars Robert Sterling and Virginia Gilmore as the Troys. Its plot is often remarkably faithful to the novel. This adaptation works tirelessly to keep cramming the book's plot threads in. Unfortunately, I found the storytelling of this TV version to be lifeless, even grating. By contrast, I enjoyed the original novel both times I read it.
The Blonde Died Dancing (1956) was filmed in France as Do You Want to Dance With Me? (1959). It starred Brigitte Bardot; not many literary characters have been played by Loretta Young at her most sophisticated, and by Brigitte Bardot.
To Save His Life (1968) was made into an absorbing TV-Movie, Dead Men Tell No Tales (1971). Robert Dozier's script has some excellent plot twists. Leading man Christopher George gives a charismatic performance.
Made Up To Kill is a minor novel, compared to many later works of Kelly Roos. It is readable, but the people are less likable than in later Roos novels. The book's events are grimmer and thus less enjoyable than many later Roos novels, too.
Mystery Plot. The main murder plot is not inspired.
The book is full of disconnected subplots, in which the various suspects are immersed. Some of these are pretty trivial, but one, the Lee Gray subplot, is fairly clever (solved second half of Chapter 15). The small subplot about Philip Ashley comes to a simple but pleasant conclusion (Chapters 1, end of 7, 13).
Van Dine Traditions. This tale refers to such detectives as S.S. Van Dine's Philo Vance, Ellery Queen, and Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe. It is pretty easy to guess which detective writers the authors value: these are all members of the Van Dine school!
This is a backstage story, set during the run of a Broadway play in which aspiring actress Haila is appearing. This theatrical setting is typical of Van Dine school writers. The look at the early career of a distinguished theatrical producer-director is interesting (start of Chapter 11).
The main setting of a Broadway theater somewhat resembles such later Roos locales as the apartment building in The Frightened Stiff, the showboat in "Death Is a Trouper", and the boarding house in There Was a Crooked Man. Each character has their own dressing room or office in the theater, the way each suspect has a room or apartment in the other novels.
The Detective. Jeff Troy is a photographer for an ad agency. He is on vacation when the murder occurs, and decides he would like to be a detective. In this tale, and subsequent ones, he accepts a fee as a private eye to work on the case; but Jeff and Haila are clearly in the tradition of amateur sleuths, and are treated as such by the friendly policeman in this novel. There is some nice satire on the concept of the amateur detective in Chapter 2 of Murder in Any Language (1948). Roos also satirizes the "wife who is always walking in on murder" gambit (Chapter 5). However, this is only a cliché of the 1940's, whereas the amateur detective is one of the key concepts of mystery fiction.
Stereotypes. The black elevator operator is stereotyped. This is another key reason to not recommend Made Up To Kill, in addition to problems with the main murder mystery and unlikable characters. Very thankfully, such stereotypes are largely absent from Roos' later work.
It is less successful than later Roos novels. It has two main problems. One is the tone of grim anxiety, even horror sometimes, that dominates this book. It is not fun to read. Most of the later Troy novels are full of comedy and joie de vivre. Kelley Roos has not found the right tone yet for their books.
Secondly, the book lacks a brilliant puzzle plot idea for its events, although the second murder that occurs late in the book shows some ingenuity.
Roos instead has labored endlessly to marshal dozens of small details into mystery patterns. The book is full of small, insignificant clues, tiny plot threads and small bits of business that the authors try to weave into a solution at the end. This solution is almost as complicated and large as a solution to an ultra-complex Carr or Ellery Queen novel. But while those authors' solutions were made up of brilliant puzzle plot ideas of substance, here we just get mountains of trivia all sewn together. If sheer labor or effort could make a mystery tale plot worthwhile, this book would qualify. It unfortunately lacks the ingenuity required for good puzzle plot fiction.
The Opening. The opening has decent storytelling, showing the events that lead up to the murder (Chapters 1-3). This opening:
The Nightclub. The nightclub scene (Chapter 10) is fun. Partly because it introduces two new mystery subplots (SPOILERS. These subplots are 1) Where is Kenyon getting his money? 2) Who is the man with Erika at the club, and why is he secretive?) Eventually we discover these two mystery subplots are linked, when we get a solution to the first and a partial solution to the second (second half of Chapter 13).
The nightclub chapter is also fun because it gives us a look at one of the suspects, a man who doubles as as avant-garde dancer. Van Dine School novels often have inside looks at people in entertainment or the arts; this is an example. The portrait of the dancer's work and clothes is colorful.
The dancer is one of a number of men in 1940's American mysteries who has really dressy clothes. See Men's Dressy Clothes in 1940's American Mysteries for a list and discussion.
Police Fairness. The police make an odd, brief mention of them being "fair" to the suspects (first part of Chapter 4). The police also say that such fairness is due to the suspects, because they are American citizens. I'm guessing that this is a reference to some then-current political controversy. But I don't know what this actually refers to.
This is a nicely done detective novel, by any standards. It starts out conventionally, if a bit wackily, with the discovery of a corpse and the introduction of a bunch of suspects. But then the mysteries start piling up, and the book becomes quite imaginative in its twists, and in linking everything together in its plot. The dialogue is full of humor, and there is a good take-off on the HIBK school, in the scene where the heroine wanders all alone in the spooky cellar (Chapter 5).
Roos often conceals clues around rooms. We see a character's rooms and all their belongings; later the detective deduces a hidden significance from some object in the room.
There is a nice dovetailing quality to Roos' plots. If there is an odd, unexplained detail, or some strange aspect to someone's behavior, it is bound to link up with some other aspect of the mystery plot later on in some unexpected way. This sort of dovetailing always gives pleasure to the true mystery fan. Roos loves clues, and sprinkles them liberally throughout the books.
There is an evolutionary quality to Roos' puzzle plots. First we have a surprising revelation of part of the truth. Later, we will have a second revelation that builds on the first, and so on. Oftentimes, this twists the original idea into some new shape. These ideas can involve a series of characters: we will find a character in the series of people that is behaving in an anomalous way, different from the others, that is not sharing in their common behavior or structural position in the plot. This character looks at first glance as if they were just another member of the series, but they are not. Among Roos' fiction, The Frightened Stiff matches up in mystery plot technique with "Murder Among Ladies" (1950), being tales about series of people.
The authors show considerable ingenuity in the non-impossible crime aspects of the plot, as well. These are full of the hidden significances to actions that the Kelley Roos team loved.
A "hidden criminal scheme" is revealed at the end of the story. Such criminal schemes are a frequent kind of mystery puzzle - always welcome when done well.
Characters. The characters in the story are the kind of eccentric hobbyists we are familiar with from S. S. Van Dine and his followers Ellery Queen and Rex Stout.
The enthusiastic little boy in the first chapter is a pleasant comic touch. He anticipates the more elaborately drawn kid in There Was a Crooked Man. See also the comic young girl Rita Pinker in "Death Is a Trouper". These characters are all nicely done.
Society. Paul Muni is mentioned as an example of a great actor, maybe the world's best (Chapter 1). Muni was a liberal icon in this era, for the social commentary films he had made.
This imaginative work stands with The Frightened Stiff as the best of the Roos' detective novels.
Intellectual characters are a staple of Van Dine school writers.
Some characters also have theater connections: the theater also being prominent in Van Dine school mysteries.
There Was a Crooked Man (1945) is an expanded version of an American Magazine novella called "Murder by Degrees" (1944), which is a better and more appropriate title.
There Was a Crooked Man has a pleasantly low-key approach. The characters are often comic and the tale is light-hearted. Aside from the murder, the various criminal activities are fairly small potatoes, and relaxing to read about.
Characters and their Situations. Some of the characters and their stories recall those of Made Up To Kill:
The main murder plot is linked to a widespread kind of mystery puzzle, a hidden criminal scheme. This scheme provides the motive for the murder. It is also an ingenious mystery in its own right, as the detectives try to figure out what is going on.
Mystery Subplot. The main subplot anticipates events in Murder in Any Language (1948), although the details are pleasantly different in both novels. This subplot has plenty of charm. BIG SPOILERS. We are referring to the library book subplot in There Was a Crooked Man, and the jeweled pin subplot in Murder in Any Language.
Disappearances. Two other mysteries, each involve a disappearance (SPOILERS):
In fact the whole book is fun to read. It has an upbeat quality, and some pleasant humor and repartee. I enjoy intuitionist mysteries; the authors are in there trying, and a "nice" mystery is not to be sneezed at.
The tale's "a couple tries to prevent the assassination" plot recalls Hitchcock's film The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934).
Ghost of a Chance is an expanded version of an American Magazine novella "Lady About to Die" (April 1945). Ghost of a Chance is a title without much connection to the story.
Detection: Belle. In the first half, the detectives have to learn whatever they can about the murdered man. One of the few clues is the name of a woman he knew, "Belle" (Chapter 4). Nothing else is known about Belle. But the sleuths soon unravel this mystery (later in Chapter 4). Such a "mysterious woman no one has ever seen" plays a role in other Roos mystery puzzles: Lee Gray in Made Up to Kill, Mary Connors in Murder in Any Language, Vivien in "Death Is a Trouper". Mary McLane in Requiem for a Blonde is a related character.
The sleuths learn about Belle, by combining what they know about her with another standard form of Roos detective work. That is "looking at the objects in a person's room, and later realizing that one of them has a hidden significance."
It is satisfying to see a solution emerge from the combination of two different streams of information.
As is sometimes the case with Roos detective plots, the Belle thread is stretched out into a further series of step-by-step revelations (middle of Chapter 6, middle of Chapter 8).
Second Half. The book's second half is virtually a separate story (Chapters 9 - 18). It mainly contains characters who get introduced in this section. This second half is inoffensive - but not very good either. Aside from a witty-but-brief visit to Rockefeller Center (start of Chapter 10), and a return to the subway (second half of Chapter 17), it lacks the New York locations that add so much to the first half.
The second half has whodunit aspects. A hidden villain gets revealed at the end of the tale. Unfortunately, there is no way for the reader to deduce the identity of the villain. The main clue used by the sleuths is only introduced immediately before they reveal who-done-it. And while the choice of villain has a certain plausibility, it otherwise shows no ingenuity.
Better is a plot twist (premise set forth in first half of Chapter 9, revealed end of Chapter 13).
Buildings and Streets. Roos' New York City settings are often leftovers from previous eras. The Troys' apartment, site of a former speakeasy; the many old residential buildings in what are now industrial areas; boarded up old mansions and the like are the nostalgic locales of the tales. During the war years of the 1940's there was a moratorium on new building in the United States, so probably there were a lot of such old areas that were making do until construction could be resumed.
Some New York locales in Ghost of a Chance recall Pittsburgh settings in "Death Is a Trouper":
An Aging Man. We eventually learn that the aging victim has pride in his past. He has kept relicts of better days, including his top hat. This is emotionally involving.
The top hat is a phallic symbol. It recalls a top hat, also found in the victim's home, in Murder in the Mews (1931) by Helen Reilly, which also contains a clue.
Snow. A New York City snowstorm, and the subsequent efforts by city workers to remove the snow, forms a background motif in Ghost of a Chance. The novel emphasizes the efficiency of New York's snow removal (Chapter 3).
A Manhattan snowstorm and its clean-up furnishes the start of Helen McCloy's Dance of Death (1938).
Film Version. Ghost of a Chance was filmed as Scent of Mystery (1960). The location was changed to Spain, and the film was scripted by William Rose. The stories' tracking and trailing made Rose a logical choice of screenwriter, as he is the author of such road and chase comedies as Genevieve, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!. The Roos team also did a novelization of the film. The movie was made in a scent added process called Smell-O-Vision, a process later burlesqued by John Waters in his film Polyester (1980).
Plot Construction. Murder in Any Language has a step by step construction. A subplot mystery is not elucidated all at once; rather, the facts behind it are revealed one step at a time. One chapter might show what was done, another, what a character's motivation was. This gives a web work effect, as details of a subplot stretch across the book and several characters. Following this effect can be quite pleasant, especially in the later parts of the book, as the design begins to grow in complexity and the details fill in.
It is hard to know whether to recommend Murder in Any Language or not. It is not a great classic of mystery fiction, and it is not as clever as some of Roos' other writings. But I enjoyed reading it, and it has some pleasant ideas.
Links to Made Up to Kill: Plot. Made Up to Kill and Murder in Any Language both deal with mysterious women (Lee Gray and Mary Connors, respectively) who threaten the characters, but whom nobody has apparently ever seen. The resolution of these "mysterious women" plots are also related, although they are distinctly different, as well. They are variations on a common set of ideas. In Made Up to Kill, this is just a subplot, even though it is the best thing in the book, but in Murder in Any Language, Roos has wisely placed this situation at the center of the murder mystery.
There are other similarities in the two novels. Both:
The novel seems implicitly nervous about the new, lavish Hotel Manhattan, a center for tourists who want to party-hearty (middle of Chapter 3).
Links to If the Shroud Fits: Setting. The language school locale recalls the photography studio in If the Shroud Fits. Both:
Van Dine school novels often have settings among the intelligentsia. The photography studio in If the Shroud Fits, and the language school in Murder in Any Language are examples of this.
Both novels involve a victim being stabbed with a knife, on the business premises.
Post-War Prosperity. If the Shroud Fits (1941) was published before the US entered World War II, and Murder in Any Language (1948) appeared three years after the war ended. The glitzy business offices in both works make a contrast to the wartime austerity in Ghost of a Chance. The vast, glamorous new Hotel Manhattan in Murder in Any Language (middle of Chapter 3), less than two years old, reflects the prosperity and construction boom of the post-war years.
Politics. There are some brief humorous references to current controversies involving far-Left radical politics:
Comic Duos. In both Ghost of a Chance (second half of Chapter 8) and Murder in Any Language (Chapter 11), the Troys meet a pair of witnesses. This pair exchange corny jokes and quips, in ways that seem like a zany comedy act. The women in Ghost of a Chance are dubbed the "Marx Sisters", by analogy to the real life "Marx Brothers". And in Murder in Any Language, Mort and Leo are compared to a vaudeville act (start of Chapter 12).
Mystery Plot. This minor novel has the most perfunctory puzzle plot of any Roos novel I've read. It is readable, and has the Roos' storytelling charm. Ladies man Wendell Kipp is a nice character, and his small subplot shows some ingenuity. The Rooses deserve credit for their cheerfulness. Like Agatha Christie, there is plenty of affectionate spoofing of typical social types in their books.
Schools for Adults. Like Murder in Any Language (1948) of the same year, it is set in a specialized New York City school that teaches adults, this time a dancing academy. Murder in Any Language take place at a school for foreign languages, while Roos' third work of the year, the novella "Beauty Marks the Spot" (1948), is set at a charm school. Such stories continue the Van Dine tradition of giving all the characters a common intellectual interest.
There is a certain formal similarity between these stories and Roos' rooming house tales:
Despite its fairly late date of 1958, Requiem for a Blonde is a full-fledged puzzle plot whodunit, like nearly all of Roos' previous books.
The Broadway show background is an example of the Van Dine School's interest in show biz. Some characters specialize in show biz patter.
Roos Traditions. Earlier Roos books featured a bunch of disparate characters living in a rooming house. Requiem for a Blonde has a bunch of people staying in a country mansion for a weekend party.
Traditional English country house mysteries often feature upper class people as guests. By contrast, Requiem for a Blonde has earthy show biz types. It is another Roos book set among theater people.
Requiem for a Blonde recalls "Murder Among Ladies" in that it involves a gathering of diverse women who have travelled to attend an event.
Elsie Briggs is another Roos character with a past no one knows about, and who has only recently met the other characters. This recalls actress Carol Blanton in Made Up To Kill and Paul Collins in There Was a Crooked Man. Such characters who show up out of the blue are a Roos tradition.
A "mysterious woman no one has ever seen" plays a role in several Roos mysteries. Mary McLane plays a somewhat similar role in Requiem for a Blonde. People have indeed seen her - but no one has seen her for seven years, and her whereabouts and motives are indeed mysterious.
A Jaguar sports car recalls the elaborate look at antique cars in "Deadly Detour".
Photography used as part of a party weekend, recalls that Jeff Troy is a photographer.
Mystery Subplot: Nicky Benedict. Nicky Benedict is a character in both novella and novel. But the novel has a new mystery sub-plot about him, not found in the novella. The sub-plot's structure echoes Roos traditions:
Novella to Novel: Police. For no apparent reason, the novella "Final Performance" is set in mountains in New Mexico. In Requiem for a Blonde the locale is shifted to Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, a bit closer to the typical Roos home base of New York City. In "Final Performance" the policeman is Saul Lansing, who works for the county. At one point he is described as "tired." In Requiem for a Blonde he becomes rugged young thirty-something Sergeant Saul Lansing of the Massachusetts State Police. Other State Troopers work in support. Sergeant Lansing is indefatigable, working all hours of the day and night. He also seems likable throughout. This is clearly an upgrade, to a more macho character.
The State Police are given a neat "barracks", that is actually a converted house (Chapter 9). Sgt. Lansing is subtly equated with being a father figure in charge of the house, a cool idea. The whole image combines comedy and swagger. The same section emphasizes that the Sergeant is part of a hierarchy. And that the State Police have advanced communications.
In real life several famous Americans named Saul are Jewish: Saul Bass, Saul Bellow, Saul Perlmutter. Is the name Saul Lansing meant to suggest he is Jewish? If so, there are no other references to this. And like almost all Golden Age books, the police characters have no "back story" that would tell about their background. In any case, Saul Lansing is a likable and sympathetic character.
Novella to Novel: Suspects. Most of the suspects are fairly similar in the two books. Many have slightly changed names. More importantly, the characters in Requiem for a Blonde are much more developed. They sparkle, while many of their sketchy prototypes in "Final Performance" fail to come alive.
There are more suspects in the novel than in the novella, with new characters introduced.
Architecture. Both novella and novel have a similarly spectacular mansion. SPOILERS. In both, it is half old building, half a large ultra-modernist addition. This is pleasant but surreal. In both, a swimming pool is part outdoors, part extending into the living room, for a surreal touch. This interest in architecture is a Golden Age tradition.
The architecture is one of the best things in both versions. There are aspects of it described in the novella, that don't make it into the novel. I would advise reading the introductory descriptions of the mansion in both versions, if you can find them.
Some other mysteries feature houses that seem to mix or confuse the indoor and the outdoors. See Panic (1944) by Helen McCloy, Murder's Little Helper (1963) and Corpse Candle (1967) by George Bagby.
SPOILERS. The novel also has a fun outdoor maze (Chapters 2, 4, 16). This isn't present in the novella. Instead, an old part of an ancient New Mexico mission serves the same mystery sub-plot. It's a good sub-plot, in both versions, and essentially the same except for setting. As complex buildings featured in suspense passages with characters moving through them, the maze and the mission recall the car museum in "Deadly Detour".
Requiem for a Blonde has a vivid section describing the real-life town of Oak Bluffs (Chapters 7, start of 8). This includes its real-life architecture, especially in its climactic episode. This is unique: I've never seen anything like it in other books. It has nothing to do with the mystery plot, though. The real-life festival described in the novel is still going on today.
"Death Is a Trouper" has a pleasant first half, but then declines into mediocrity. As a whole, it seems like a lesser work.
Locale: Showboat. The first half has Haila taking an acting job on a showboat near Pittsburgh. Such show business settings are part of the Van Dine School tradition.
One wishes this setting were better developed. We learn a lot about the troupe and their professional duties, but only a little bit about what sort of plays they put on, or about the audiences who come to see them. In the tale's second half, the story stops telling us anything about the showboat.
The showboat is one of those Roos locales where a disparate group of people all live together and interact. Usually those locales are buildings, somewhere on land. But this one is afloat.
Mystery Subplot: Mysterious Unknown Person. The best mystery subplot involves the mysterious Vivien. This subplot is posed and solved within the first half of the story.
This subplot is a nice variant on puzzles in Made Up to Kill and Murder in Any Language. In those books, a mysterious woman who no one has ever seen threatens the characters. In the more light-hearted "Death Is a Trouper", Vivien is still a mysterious woman who no one has seen, but she doesn't threaten anyone. "Death Is a Trouper" comes to a clever, and fairly clued solution to the mystery of Vivien.
Mystery Subplot: Disappearance. Another subplot has a character who disappears, and the search for where she is located. This subplot shows little creativity, and leads to an unimaginative choice of location for the disappearee. Better disappearance puzzles will appear in There Was a Crooked Man.
Murder Mystery Plot. The main murder mystery has a labored motive.
The main murder mystery's best feature: a clue enabling the Troys to deduce the identity of the killer. The detectives show that one and only suspect is consistent with this clue. Such a solution recalls the finales of Ellery Queen tales, in which the guilty party has to meet a profile based on one or more clues.
Another kind of ambiguity is also found in Kelly Roos' fiction. This is an incident, watched by outside observers, that looks one way on the surface, but whose truth is very different. These incidents form little mini-mysteries in the text. Often times they are quite ingenious. This sort of ambiguity recalls G.K. Chesterton, and writers in the Chesterton tradition, such as Agatha Christie. These events do not appear to be ambiguous; they look straightforward. But eventually a surprise interpretation of them is sprung on the reader.
Mystery Plot. "Murder Among Ladies" shows the influence of the two greatest intuitionist authors, Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen. The plot pleasantly recalls in general terms such Christie stories of multiple murders as The ABC Murders (1936) and And Then there Were None (1939). Also Christie like: the search through backgrounds of the characters for clues to the present crimes.
Ellery Queen like features include the box of curios delivered to one of the suspects, the gathering of the women and the plot changes rung therein, and the way much of the plot turns on the possession of knowledge: what different people knew when. There is always a search for hidden meaning in striking but obscure events: what do these curios mean? what is the significance of Mady's resistance to meeting the Troys? The gathering of women is full of an EQ technique: small but significant changes are explored in a pattern, always reaching for meaningful but hard to see variations in what at first looks like a fixed pattern.
Advertising. "Murder Among Ladies" is set in the advertising world, and concerns a photography shoot: both features that recall If the Shroud Fits. However, the shoot takes place on location, rather than in a studio as in If the Shroud Fits.
Nice young adman Ray Caldwell recalls young publicity man Bill Dressen in Murder in Any Language. Both are good looking, mainly sympathetic, and beaux to even nicer young woman suspects, thus getting a romance subplot going. But neither is so sympathetic that they cannot serve as suspects.
Both are dynamic young go-getters, on the make in the business world. Roos clearly sympathizes with such people. Satire of the ad world is instead provided by middle-aged adman Larry Bryant.
Locales. "Murder Among Ladies" is set at government museums all over Washington DC. It thus recalls the many Manhattan locations in Ghost of a Chance and Murder in Any Language.
Aunt Ellie. Haila's comic Aunt Ellie returns from Ghost of a Chance. Aunt Ellie does not appear "on stage". Instead, she communicates with Haila through an airmail letter, and later a phone call.
The original novella title is something of a pun. The story is about a reunion of actresses, and does indeed involve a character's final performance. It is also the farewell appearance of the Troys, until their return in One False Move (1966).
This tale is quite conventional in its plotting.
"Deadly Detour" is one of the last four novellas Roos wrote for the American Magazine. Some of these have common characteristics:
The Museum. "Deadly Detour" includes an antique car museum. It reflects the interest of the Van Dine school in collectors, and in small private museums.
The museum is full of carefully staged tableaux. These use wax dummies. They recall the carefully staged scenes made by the ad photographer in If the Shroud Fits. The photo tableaux in If the Shroud Fits use professional models, while the car museum tableaux employ wax dummies, however.
The barn with the museum also houses a work area, where the cars are restored. It is in this work area where the crime takes place. "Deadly Detour" is thus another Roos mystery taking place in work area.
The Hero. The hero is another of Roos' sympathetic young businessmen. He owns a startup printing business.
The Stutz Bearcat driven by the hero is an expression of glamorous masculinity. It was an archetypal sports car and racing car of the 1910's era. Later there would be a TV series Bearcats! (1971), whose 1914 heroes also drive a Stutz Bearcat.
"One Victim Too Many" includes the staging of a historical pageant. This recalls the show business and theater background of previous Roos books, as well as the Van Dine school as a whole. The pageant, staged by producer Dave Logan, also recalls the tableaux staged by advertising photographer in If the Shroud Fits.
Dave Logan recalls Jeff Troy, in that he is the detective who solves the case. Both are intelligent young men in the commercial arts.
The first victim in "One Victim Too Many" is a blackmailer. As in Murder in Any Language, he is a clean cut looking young man, who is actually blackmailing folks whose secrets he's found out. Both blackmailers leave behind documents they used for blackmail, among their possessions.
The story recalls in its basic approach "Deadly Detour" (1952). Both:
Similarly, in the Troy novels there is a parity between Jeff Troy's profession as an advertising photographer, and Haila Troy's work as an actress. Both are careers in the New York arts. Neither is essentially different from the other.
One can find other doubles in "The Case of the Hanging Gardens". The two sisters, one married and the other single, both experience difficulties with their romantic careers. These events seem to echo each other. Similarly, in "Final Performance", the lives and loves of the six chorus girls who make up the main suspects all have subtle echoes and contrasts with each other.
The caverns in "The Case of the Hanging Gardens" contain many chambers and passageways. In this, they are somewhat similar to the many roomed buildings that show up in the novels, such as the apartment houses in The Frightened Stiff and There Was a Crooked Man, and the school buildings in Murder in Any Language and The Blonde Died Dancing. Oddly, none of these stories contain a floor plan, and the details of architecture that are so popular in other Golden Age writers do not show up in Roos. Still, such interest in large buildings with many diverse occupants is part of the Van Dine School tradition. "The Case of the Hanging Gardens" shows an interest in phone calls; these also played a role in the second murder subplot in If the Shroud Fits, which was the cleverest part of that novel. The ambiguity of phone calls - who made them, where do they come from, what might be said on them unheard - is typical of Roos' puzzle plot interest in ambiguous situations.
The tour guide at the caverns is named Walt Carr; this is perhaps a little homage to mystery writer John Dickson Carr. Carr was originally from Pennsylvania, and "The Case of the Hanging Gardens" is set in that state. Kelley Roos also worked as scriptwriters, and the Roos team would go on to win an Edgar in 1960 for their TV version of Carr's The Burning Court (1937).
Commentary on Fay Grissom Stanley:
The first half of the book (Chapters 1 -9), describing the crime and the original murder investigation, is not bad at all. There is a floor plan, and we follow the movements of the characters around the crime scene with it, in the pleasant Van Dine school tradition. These scenes are logically constructed, and show moments of invention. Stanley also does a reasonable job evoking New York City cultural figures, and the book's first half is readable and interesting. But then the book goes downhill into grimness.
There is no Great Detective here, something that is sorely missed, and no clever puzzle plot ideas in the finale.
This reader was also disappointed that the book largely lacks the humor present in its title. Instead, the book is often soap opera like in its tone. The policeman hero of the book, Captain Steele, is intelligent, but mainly he exists as a romantic foil for the narrator heroine of the novel. A book like this is a mixed bag. It is not good enough, or successful as a whole, to recommend reading to anyone; yet it is not illiterate junk, either.
The 1950's Dell paperback has a good cover by artist James Meese, showing a man of distinction all dressed up in white tie and tails. This certainly conveys the atmosphere of New York City sophistication, that was of such appeal in that era.
Commentary on Elizabeth Dean:
Like many of the couples tales, and the Van Dine school in general, the story takes place against an intellectual background, in this case, the world of antiques. Like many other Van Dine school works, this one is full of collectors and dealers. There are also some theater people mildly involved, another Van Dine characteristic. The tale breaks with Van Dine tradition by being set in Boston, not New York City, although both are large cities in the North East, and the treatment of urban sophistication is very similar.
The story contains that Van Dine school cliché of a decade before, two men who have switched hats: see Rufus King's Murder by the Clock (1928-1929), Ellery Queen's The Roman Hat Mystery (1929) and Stuart Palmer's The Penguin Pool Murder (1931). All of these books are the debut works of their authors' series sleuths, and here we have Emma Marsh's debut as well: probably just a coincidence.
Dean spends much time following trails of missing people or objects. These trails are often unexpectedly absorbing, full of surprising twists. They tend to lead all over Boston, and Dean paints a vivid picture of the city, one similar to the more familiar portraits of different neighborhoods of New York.
Most of the interiors of the book take place either where the heroine works, or her apartment. Both of these locations seem very real. Both have a sort of genteel poverty. The characters in the book are a rung below those in many Van Dine school books, having trouble making ends meet in the Depression. There are quite a few working class characters, including the police and a taxi driver.
Although Anne Nash's Said With Flowers (1943) is part of the HIBK school, her portrait of a florist's shop is quite similar to that of the antique store in this novel. Both deal with small businesses whose employees interact intensively with a demanding clientele. Both have to custom prepare the objects sold, and both require deliveries. Both buildings are small, non-glitzy, and filled with stock; both have a small and even more ramshackle office area. In both books we mainly see female employees, giving a window into the world of female work of the period.
The detective work and plotting of the first two thirds of this novel (Chapters 1 - 12) are very good. This makes the finale all the more disappointing. Dean drags in motivations for the killer that we have never seen; there is a lack of fair play. Also, many of the events we have been trying to find meaning in throughout the book turn out to be simple accidents without significance. This is certainly possible in real life: but it is disappointing in a detective story.
Commentary on Jack Iams:
Both books are murder mysteries. But there is precious little detection in either. The heroes of the books get questioned by the police, are in constant trouble with the law and the bad guys, get tangled up with the suspects in every way, but rarely do anything purposeful to actually solve the crime. Nor do the mysteries have clever solutions.
Death Draws the Line is a non-series work, set in New York City. Although the victim is a comic strip creator, and the book was put together with the aid of famed comic strip artist Roy Crane (Captain Easy, Buz Sawyer), there is distressingly little inside info on the comic strip business.
This book suffers from sleaziness and unlikable characters, although it is readable.
It is much more wholesome than Death Draws the Line, and has a readable start leading up to the murder, but it is no great shakes either.
There are also structural features in the novel that recall Marsh. There is a disconnect between the sections of the novel. The first third describes the events leading up to the murder. These are leisurely paced, and not too detection oriented. They are full of social satire, dealing with a wide variety of issues affecting 1950's America. After the murder, the final two thirds of the novel are an almost pure detective story. Most of this later section book looks at formal patterns of the puzzle plot. There is only a little bit about the social issues of the first third. This architecture is fairly similar to those in Ngaio Marsh's books, which begin with social comedy, then move on to a serious investigation after the murder.
The puzzle plot and detection also recall Marsh's techniques. There is much concern about the movements of the characters around the crime scene, which is architecturally described. The crime is constantly seen from new perspectives, as various witnesses describe their participation in the key events of the murder. There are sometimes surprising revelations about events we have already seen. This recalls such Marsh books as Death in a White Tie (1938), which repeatedly revisits key events of the story, suggesting new insight and significance to the events. A favorite Marsh theme is also involved in the revelation of the killer, but I cannot be more specific without giving away the solution.
The characters in Iams' book are less sophisticated than in Marsh's writings, deliberately so, probably. We see a cross section of American business people, some refined, some average, some sleazy. All of them have a much more earthy tone that Marsh's theater people. The comedy is much more raucous, as well. There are some hoods in this novel, and some occasional rough stuff, but this seems more a desire to add some variety to the book, than the result of any deep affinity between Jack Iams and the hard-boiled school.
Ngaio Marsh shares many features in common with the Van Dine school, and Jack Iams' novel can certainly be seen as a representative of the Van Dine tradition, or rather its 1940's descendants such as the Lockridges. Like most of the Van Dine school, there is a socially sophisticated setting among people with a creative profession - in this case newspaper reporting. The amateur detectives have a generally friendly relationship with the police - the reporter hero is old friends with the Inspector in charge. This too resembles Van Dine and company. Also in the Van Dine school tradition: the liberal politics and social commentary.
Iams emerged at a time when many Americans thought of Intuitionism as the equal to the detective story itself. Most of the most popular detective story writers in the USA were intuitionists.
What Rhymes With Murder? is hardly a perfect detective novel. It move slowly before Iams gets to the murder. Coincidence is over employed in the plotting, with too many independent events going on at once. Nor does the book rise to an Agatha Christie level of brilliance. However, the clever plot twists and the witty writing have real appeal.
The book concerns the heroes' attempt to rescue a prisoner held by the Communists in Poland. This was a frequent, almost generic plot of 1950's American spy stories; one can also find it in Holly Roth's The Content Assignment (1953) and Kendell Foster Crossen's The Splintered Man (1955). It probably occurs in other novels, too. Both Iams' and Crossen's also deal with mind-controlling drugs used by the Communists; brain washing was a big concern of people in the early 1950's.
In all of these books, the villains and their schemes are treated seriously, while the heroes are treated as the subjects of a light hearted, even comic adventure story. They get to swashbuckle around, have hair raising escapes, and lots of entertaining experiences traveling to exotic climes. The ancestor of all these adventure stories is Alexandre Dumas, and his The Three Musketeers (1844). Dumas had many scenes of prison escapes in his stories, as well.
According to Iams' preface, he had actually spent some time in Communist Poland, as a guest of the American Embassy, and the book contains vivid descriptions of what the Communist state looked like in 1950.
Iams' book is entertaining throughout; it is a "good read". But it also seems fairly trivial, some of the travel writing excepted. It has little to do with the history of the mystery story proper.
Links to What Rhymes With Murder? One can see similarities between What Rhymes With Murder? and A Shot of Murder: