Theodora Du Bois | Continuing Characters
Novels: Death Dines Out | Death Comes to Tea
| The Body Goes Round and Round | The Case of the Perfumed Mouse
| The Face of Hate | It's Raining Violence
| High Tension | Seeing Red
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
Theodora Du Bois
Death Dines Out (1939) (Chapters 1 - 4, 8, 12, 13, 15)
Death Comes to Tea (1940) (Chapters 1, 5, 6)
The Body Goes Round and Round (1942) (Chapters 3, 5, 10, 14, 17)
The Case of the Perfumed Mouse (1944) (Chapters 1, end of 4, 7, 11, 16, 17)
Seeing Red (1954) (Chapters 2, 7)
Theodora Du Bois
Theodora Du Bois wrote mysteries, historical fiction, short stories and children's literature.
Her papers are housed at the College of Staten Island Library, CUNY, whose
has a detailed biographical study. The collection also contains copies of
Theodora Du Bois' "33 plays for adults" and "75 plays for children", as well as many of her short stories.
Commentary on Theodora Du Bois:
- A mystery fiction bibliography can be found at the
Golden Age of Detection Wiki.
- Marvin Lachman's review of Theodora Du Bois' The Listener is at
- Anthony Boucher occasionally discussed Theodora Du Bois,
in his collected reviews from the 1940's called The Anthony Boucher Chronicles.
He praised her Death Comes to Tea and The Case of the Perfumed Mouse,
but was less enthused about some of her other books.
- Curtis Evans' article on Death Comes to Tea is at
The Passing Tramp.
- Curtis Evans' article on Death Is Late to Lunch is at
The Passing Tramp.
- Lisa Kucharski's career survey of Theodora Du Bois is at
The Passing Tramp.
- The Wikipedia article.
Dr. Jeffrey McNeill and his homemaker wife Anne McNeill are the main continuing characters
and detectives in Theodora Du Bois' mystery novels. While Dr. Jeffrey McNeill is billed
as the detective in the pair, Anne McNeill does detective work with him,
and often makes significant discoveries.
In the later books the McNeills have two children, Michael and Martin.
There are many scenes especially of Anne with the boys.
It is unusual for a fictional detective to be a mother.
The McNeills have a cook-governess-maid Mary. Mary is a salty, strong, working class type
who talks like a stage Irishman. She relieves Anne of much of the hard work of
raising children and running a home. No one questions the justice of this arrangement.
The way that the McNeills are depicted as the perfect couple with the perfect upper middle class
lifestyle can be a bit hard to take.
Regular law enforcement officials include:
The McNeill books tend to center on the Greater New York City area, broadly defined.
They have a strong liking for scenes near the water, often in suburban or semi-rural areas.
- District Attorney Walter Donahue, friendly and professional and refined, a small "bird-like" man like
Inspector Queen in the Ellery Queen mysteries; he is respectful to Dr. Jeffrey McNeill.
There is a character sketch of him in Death Comes to Tea (start of Chapter 15).
- Inspector Matthews of Homicide, who is mean-spirited and always
trying to railroad some suspect to the death house.
- Sergeant Grymes, a sympathetic cop who tries to help people and suspects.
The gentle Sergeant Grymes is a lightly comic character, with an individual
personality different from most policemen in detective novels.
Grymes is Irish, tall and has a bit of a working class rough-and-tumble personality,
a friendly guy who has been around and seen a lot of life.
Death Dines Out
Detection and Science
Theodora Du Bois' Death Dines Out (1939) is constructed
as a combination medical detective novel and Had I But Known (HIBK)
mystery. The narrator is a young woman who serves as Watson to her husband, a doctor
who performs medical detection in the tradition of Dr. Thorndyke
(the series detective created by R. Austin Freeman).
This book involves genuine medical mysteries. It is close in style
to the later, 1940's work of George Harmon Coxe's
Dr. Paul Standish, and Lawrence Blochman's
Dr. Coffee, but earlier than either. Theodora Du Bois seems to be a genuine
original, someone who started new trends in American mystery fiction
in her day. Her work seems to have few precedents. She is not closely related to
the American Scientific school of Reeve and Balmer,
who flourished twenty years before her. Realist School
signs seem to be absent, as well: there is no Background, no "breakdown of identity".
There is some resemblance in Theodora Du Bois' books to the
Rinehart school. Both Mary Roberts Rinehart herself,
and such Rinehart followers as Dorothy Cameron Disney,
sometimes included medical mysteries in their books. Still, these writers did not
usually include doctor-detectives, or make medical detection so
absolutely central to their writings, although Rinehart came close
in her early Miss Pinkerton novellas (1914).
Theodora Du Bois, like Coxe after her, tends to include much interesting
medical detail in the crime itself, detail which soon after is
elucidated by the doctor sleuth investigating the crime. This
is good in itself, and it makes the early chapters of the book
lively reading, but it does not leave much medical mystery left
over for the later chapters of the story. By contrast, Blochman
tends to include genuine medical mysteries in his tales: puzzling
events that are part of the mystery throughout the entire work,
and whose solution is only revealed in the final pages.
Theodora Du Bois' medical detective, Dr. Jeffrey McNeill, is much more
closely involved with the crime scene than are most medical detectives
of fiction. Dr. Thorndyke seems to be called in later by the insurance
company, and Dr. Coffee is a pathologist who does much of his
work in the lab. By contrast, McNeill is right in there from the
start, doing a hands on investigation of everything people have
eaten, drunk or touched. He reminds one more of the real life
medical sleuths of today, who show up in their anti-viral suits
and immediately dig in. He has a great sense of urgency, as well.
Theodora Du Bois' HIBK approach gets him on the crime scene early: he and
his wife tend to be personal friends of the people involved in the case, and
in Death Dines Out and Death Comes to Tea they are present socially
at the time of the murder. Even after the original crime, however,
the hands on approach persists: McNeill is out at garbage dumps,
investigating food remains, and interrogating witnesses.
Had I But Known
Death Dines Out has features of the Had I But Known (HIBK)
school of mystery:
The book is closer to the classic puzzle plot mystery than are
some HIBK novels: after an introductory chapter, it moves right
away to a murder with a closed circle of suspects.
- The narrator is a young woman who takes part in suburban New York Society.
- She is always prowling HIBK style around houses gathering up clues,
and learning about the suspects' tangled emotional lives.
- The narration follows the continuous, event after event, "and then I did"
tradition of Mary Roberts Rinehart, founder of the HIBK school.
There is some good romance between the narrator and her husband:
at one point they are compared to the leads of the animated film,
Snow White (1936). Despite the narrator's modest denial,
they do resemble Snow White and Prince Charming.
Science aside, the mystery plot is not especially developed.
The one main clue to the killer is small and hardly conclusive.
There is a mildly ingenious hiding place for the murder poison.
This too gets a clue, and is linked to the identity of the killer.
There is also a hidden motive for the killer. It too has a single, simple clue.
The two boys who are non-series characters in Death Dines Out,
anticipate the McNeills' two sons in later novels in the series.
The young woman artist takes in poor kids from the city and gives them free vacations
in her summer cottage, anticipates the woman in The Case of the Perfumed Mouse
who runs a country home for intellectuals with emotional problems.
So a bit, does the way that Anne McNeill offers encouragement to the writer with emotional problems,
in Death Dines Out.
A rural couple runs the local garbage pick-up service (start of Chapter 8).
Rural people with very small businesses and working class lives occasionally appear in
Theodora Du Bois books. They anticipate the older couple who live along back waterways
in Seeing Red - a couple who is so marginalized in their work that they seem to be
"living off the grid", to use the modern phrase.
Social Commentary: Ordinary People Having Trouble Paying for College
The Wall Street financier in Death Dines Out is seen as a mean-spirited type,
a common characterization in the Depression. He is refusing to help
fund his nephew in medical school. Financiers are often depicted as sinister in
behavior in Theodora Du Bois books.
The financial difficulties ordinary people had in attending college
were much on the minds of social critics in this era.
These problems would continue until the G.I. Bill (1944) gave government tuition to veterans,
and allowed large numbers of ordinary Americans to attend college for the first time.
Looks by mystery writers at the financial difficulties of college include:
The young medical student is characterized as a failure by his uncle,
because he has flunked a medical exam, and is still not self-supporting at age 26.
This anticipates the "failed intellectuals" who appear on a larger scale in
other Theodora Du Bois novels.
Death Comes to Tea
Theodora Du Bois' Death Comes to Tea (1940) is a mixed book.
Its virtues include some sympathetic social commentary about refugees and the war (Chapter 1)
and a decent passage of Scientific Detection (Chapters 5, 6).
On the downside the rest of the book is thinly imagined.
And except for the cheerful Scientific Detection passage the story is relentlessly grim.
The book has an unpleasant atmosphere of horror.
The phrase "Scientific Detection" can refer to two different things:
Some books do both: both the villain and the detective use science.
This is true in both Death Comes to Tea and The Body Goes Round and Round.
- The villain using scientific means to commit the crime.
- The detective using science to solve the mystery of the crime.
In Death Comes to Tea much of the Scientific Detection is concentrated in a single long passage (Chapters 5, 6).
This passage explains the scientific way the villain committed the crime
AND shows the detective using science to solve the crime.
SPOILERS. In both Death Dines Out and Death Comes to Tea, it is not enough
that the victim is poisoned. For the poison to work, there has to be a second, contributing factor.
In Death Dines Out this is an opening in the gastrointestinal tract: in this case the victim's ulcer.
In Death Comes to Tea it is a remark that causes stress in the victim, with the stress combining
with the poison to kill.
SPOILERS. There are similarities in the detective work in Death Comes to Tea and The Body Goes Round and Round.
- The sleuth Dr. Jeffrey McNeill uses a machine to test something: a spectrograph in Death Comes to Tea,
an EKG in The Body Goes Round and Round.
- The machines output a graph.
- The shape of the graph is the key clue to the mystery. See Death Comes to Tea (Chapter 6),
The Body Goes Round and Round (first part of Chapter 17). In The Body Goes Round and Round,
the shape is produced by taking a whole series of graphs at different times.
Who Done It?
There is only one simple clue to the identity of the killer. I thought this clue was obvious.
In fact, I spotted it at the time of the murder.
It is Anne who figures out who-done-it at the book's end. She also figures out which
line of dialogue triggered the killing, and the story behind it.
This offers some balance to the earlier Scientific Detection passage, which is the work of Jeffrey.
No Police Investigation
An oddity: the police hardly show up till the last chapter in the book.
(They do make brief appearances at the end of Chapter 3, in Chapter 8, and the start of Chapter 12.)
And there is thus almost no police investigation of the murder. This is apparently because series character
District Attorney Walter Donahue doesn't think there is enough evidence to call in the police.
He is "skeptical" (start of Chapter 7). I didn't find his attitude or actions believable.
This also means that series policemen Inspector Matthews and Sergeant Grymes don't appear at all.
They are mentioned in passing (Chapter 8).
Death Comes to Tea is admirably supportive of a refugee family from Nazi Germany.
The family is "Non-Aryan" and has suffered much from the Nazis. They are characters appearing throughout the novel.
The issues involving them are discussed in depth in the opening (Chapter 1).
The Case of the Perfumed Mouse (1944) (Chapter 8) will also condemn the anti-Semitism of the Nazis.
The opening condemns both Hitler and Stalin (Chapter 1). Later, sympathy is expressed for
small democratic countries victimized by the war: Finland, Belgium, Norway, Holland (middle of Chapter 15).
These include victims of both Hitler and Stalin.
Death Comes to Tea was reviewed in late October 1940, and was thus likely written and published in 1940.
This would have been during the infamous Hitler-Stalin alliance known as Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (1939-1941).
The Pact is not mentioned in the novel. But the joint condemnation of Hitler and Stalin likely
reflects this historical fact.
An American Claude Briggs who is the enemy of all refugees is painted in a consistently negative light.
He is a follower of Nietzsche and an advocate of force (end of Chapter 7): both of which are seen as sinister.
Earlier, the anti-refugee, unsympathetic Linda Milton is seen as embodying the "will-to-power" (Chapter 1).
"The will to power" is a term invented by Nietzsche. And Hitler and Stalin are critiqued as having
the same "disease of power".
Servants, District Attorney Walter Donahue, and cops have no romantic life.
But all of the other characters in Death Comes to Tea seem explicitly heterosexual,
with romantic lives specified.
Venice Goodman is said to have "good breeding", while Linda Milton doesn't (Chapter 1).
In that era "good breeding" was supposed to be some special refinement allegedly possessed only
by people raised by wealthy families. I've never been able to figure out precisely
of what this refinement consists. Death Comes to Tea doesn't say!
Theodora Du Bois has a consistent interest in theater and drama in her books. In Death Comes to Tea:
A professor reads aloud Alexander Pope's long poem The Rape of the Lock
at an afternoon tea (end of Chapter 15).
Reading aloud classic poetry will occur in other Theodora Du Bois novels.
In The Case of the Perfumed Mouse characters entertain themselves by reading aloud
Christopher Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus.
- We learn that the McNeills like to act in summer plays, presumably in community theaters (Chapter 10).
- Don Kimberly likes opera. He refers to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (Chapter 1) and
Die Walküre (Chapter 11). Die Walküre is briefly made a subject of science fiction comedy.
Film: Attitudes of Intellectuals
Walt Disney is referred to twice by the characters (Chapters 1, 7). Both mentions are positive.
Disney was at the peak of his prestige with American intellectuals in 1940.
By contrast, we learn that the book's University medical researchers
"rather look down on movies" as a whole (middle of Chapter 16).
Clothes and Color
People's clothes are described in terms of a single bright color. This adds to their individuality:
By contrast the over-dressed Martha Delaporte wears multi-colored outfits (Chapter 3, start of Chapter 11).
- Linda Milton wears a bright red blouse and accessories (Chapter 3).
- Mrs. Bromwich wears a black cellophane cape (start of Chapter 2).
- District Attorney Walter Donahue always wears gray suits (start of Chapter 15).
- There is much description of the white lab coats the McNeills wear in the lab (Chapter 8).
The Body Goes Round and Round
Theodora Du Bois' The Body Goes Round and Round (1942) is one of her less enjoyable books, with problems:
Puzzle plots are simple and skeletal. It suffers from gloom, and a lack of entertainment values.
The motives for the villain to kill, and for the Logiani family to conceal what they know,
are both drastically inadequate for a murder mystery. It raises Big Issues about
fascist sympathizers in war-time America, then fails to explore them in depth.
The book does have some interesting things scattered through it, however.
Detection and Science
Some sections of Scientific Detection are the best parts of the novel.
The crime itself is simple, from a medical point of view.
But the sleuthing by Dr. Jeffrey McNeill to uncover the crime and criminal,
has points of medical and scientific interest
(second half of Chapters 6, middle of Chapter 12, start of Chapter 17).
SPOILERS. The crime is like the one in Death Dines Out. In both books:
The crime is compared and contrasted to the one in
Dorothy L. Sayers' Strong Poison (1930)
(middle of Chapter 12). Earlier in Death Comes to Tea (1940) (start of Chapter 2)
Anne is shown happily reading a mystery by Sayers.
- Poison is administered to a whole group of people at a fancy dinner party,
but only one diner is killed, because he has unusual medical vulnerabilities.
- Narrator Anne McNeill is among the ones dosed with the poison.
- There is a horrifying side effect due to the poison (middle of Chapter 5).
These effects are psychological in a broad sense. They are dramatized as much as possible.
There are some intriguing references to surrealism, especially surrealist painting.
The Body Goes Round and Round suggests that by 1942, surrealist art
was something about which educated, upper middle class Americans were
expected to know:
- The surrealist contest is an interesting idea (Chapter 3). The same section has an
amusing discussion of surrealist paintings used in decor.
(Party games are also prominent in Death Comes to Tea (first half of Chapter 11).)
- A surrealist poem, and the mystery of what it means, is one of the book's two main
mystery puzzle plots (Chapter 14, solved in Chapter 17). (The poem is credited in the author's acknowledgments
to Eliot Du Bois, likely the author's son who was born in 1922.)
Related works: "The Poet" (1928-1929) by Karel Capek,
The Dark Garden (1933) and "Easter Devil" (1934) in
The Cases of Susan Dare by Mignon G. Eberhart.
"Mouthpiece" (1974) by Edward Wellen
will have its detective trying to interpret an avant-garde Symbolist text.
Media of Communication
Both of the above surrealist aspects involve media of communication. Other such ideas in the novel:
While none of the above media ideas are officially Surrealist, many have the odd, strange feel
- The sleazy newspaper flyer (start of Chapter 4).
- The references to a fictitious comic book hero Power-Man Paul (middle of Chapter 13).
This is a comic riff on Superman. Superman debuted in 1938 and rapidly became famous.
- The medical lecture-demonstration that uses high technology: a microphone, loudspeaker and headphones (Chapter 6).
- The recording of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf (1936),
a multi-media work that combines a lecture and classical music (Chapter 3).
- The pulp magazines and comic books in the Logiani family home (Chapter 7).
- The amusement park and its music (end of of Chapter 10).
- The organ at the amusement park (Chapter 7).
- The store-made phonograph recording (Chapter 16).
They also all use technology. Much of this communication technology in 1942
is becoming more available to average Americans. Even working class people like the
Logiani family have access to the technology, and can communicate for themselves,
outside of the monopolies of vast corporations. The ordinary people who use this technology,
are not necessarily employing it for idealistic ends in The Body Goes Round and Round.
It is interesting to see US intellectuals listening to a recording of Peter and the Wolf (1936),
a piece of classical music just five years old, and composed in a distant country.
Do today's intelligentsia keep up with the latest developments in classical music?
Theodora Du Bois' sophisticated knowledge of theater, results in a witty reference to playwright
Ferenc Molnar (Chapter 9).
A suspect has a landscape painting by Grant Wood (Chapter 14). The McNeills have
a Grant Wood original landscape at home: see Death Dines Out (first part of Chapter 11).
Grant Wood was admired by intellectuals in that era. But his style is completely different
from the surrealists in the rest of the book.
The Sleazy Newspaper
A subplot that runs through the novel, concerns a sleazy local newspaper (start of Chapter 4).
The paper has mysterious origins. It is widely read, and makes its money advertising
dubious products, mainly part of the vice trade. I have never seen references to any such publications
in real life, and do not know whether such papers were common in actuality, or whether
Theodora Du Bois invented them for the novel. Such a paper anticipates a bit the
real-life "alternative weeklies" and "underground newspapers" that later became common in the US.
The Village Voice was the first such real-life paper, founded in 1955.
However, the paper in The Body Goes Round and Round seems
non-political, unlike the later often left-wing underground newspapers in real life.
Also, the paper in The Body Goes Round and Round is a simple one-sheet flier,
while the alternative weeklies were often large scale tabloids.
Helen McCloy's Do Not Disturb (1943) has a puzzle about
someone mysteriously printing pamphlets. These pamphlets contain fascist propaganda though,
while the newspapers in The Body Goes Round and Round offer non-political gossip and vice ads.
Please see my list and study of
Alternative Media in 1940's American Mysteries.
It's part of my article on The Murder of a Fifth Columnist (1941) by Leslie Ford,
A brief visit to Crystal Point, a Long Island working class area, is effective.
Nearly everyone has closed up their homes and left for the winter:
an eerie and unusual effect (middle of Chapter 10).
Immediately following is a trip to an amusement park shuttered for winter (end of Chapter 10).
Deserted amusement parks are something of a cliche in mystery fiction, used by writers
before Theodora Du Bois: see "The Screaming Phantom" (1935) from Bottled in Blonde
by Hugh B. Cave, and the deserted wintertime seaside resort
in "The God of the Gongs" (1914) by G.K. Chesterton.
Still, they are usually effective, and Theodora Du Bois'
treatment is appropriately atmospheric. The park is on the ocean, water-side scenes being a
Theodora Du Bois favorite. SPOILER. This section finally explains what
the book's strange, almost surreal title means. It involves a strange piece of imagery.
One of the suspects Dr. Jimmie Dundee is obsessed with boating. Some of his experiences are mentioned,
but there are no actual boating scenes. Boating is a long term Theodora Du Bois interest.
The doctors' house on Caldwell Avenue and its inhabitants are vivid (Chapter 3, 14).
It is run cooperatively by its three resident doctors (Chapter 3). Please see my list of
Cooperatives and Worker-owned Businesses in Mystery and Science Fiction.
The Logiani family, working class Italian-Americans, are cringing in fear,
in part because of bad experiences their ancestors in Sicily had with the Mob and the police.
This anticipates the cross-section of educated American living in fear of the McCarthy-era
witch hunts in Seeing Red. In both novels, such fear is unpleasant to read about.
The depiction of Italian-Americans in The Body Goes Round and Round reaches
to cliches, stereotypes and beyond. The treatment of the superstitious Irish woman Mary
is also stereotyped, although much milder (Chapter 6). By contrast, WASPs from old families
are depicted as the source of virtue (Chapter 1). All this is hard to take.
More interestingly, Sergeant Grymes, always good for non-standard thinking,
suggests men's gender identities sometimes contained unexpected depths (end of Chapter 14).
The same paragraph says that Grymes' police uniform is a bit too tight.
This is suggestive.
We learn that one man Jimmie Dundee "loves" another, Tom Klinger (first part of Chapter 3).
The book admires this. Both men seem to be heterosexual, with strong relations with women.
Clothes and Color
People's clothes are described in terms of a single bright color, in the Crystal Point sequence (Chapter 10):
One of Olcott's medical hallucinations is to see Dr. Jeffrey McNeill's black tuxedo
as bright green (Chapter 5). He thinks this is stylish.
Some men indeed wore bright colored formal wear in this period.
Band leader Don Washburn wears a spectacular red tuxedo in
George Harmon Coxe's The Lady Is Afraid (1940).
- Anthony's black rubber raincoat.
- Dr. Jeffrey McNeill's remarkably dressy dark blue overcoat.
Clothes of one color are also featured in Death Comes to Tea.
The Case of the Perfumed Mouse
Detection and Science
The Case of the Perfumed Mouse (1944) is an oddity. Around one-fourth of it is a
Scientific Detective story, and a fairly decent one (Chapters 1, end of 4, 7, 11, 16, 17).
These sections form what is essentially a separate short story, around 50 pages long.
The scientific sections are full of odd, macabre and bizarre events and images.
They are not especially brilliant from a detection standpoint, but they are imaginative
and atmospheric. I did like the mystery about the bicycle pump.
As in some other Theodora Du Bois, their mystery aspects are pretty much fully explained before the book's finale,
leaving little detail for the actual ending.
Aside from these outre events, the rest of the detective story has problems:
A clue about church bells is OK.
- The choice of the bad guy(s) at the end is weak: poorly clued and arbitrary.
- Motives are weak: anyone who would unleash the book's sinister events would have to have a powerful motive -
but such motives are absent from the novel.
- A plot gimmick is used to conceal the identity of the killer.
But it is an old gimmick, used earlier in Cornell Woolrich's
Phantom Lady (1942), for example.
A Psychological Novel
The rest of the book, three-quarters of its length, is a psychological novel,
dealing with a group of eccentric, emotionally disturbed people
living in a sort of half-way house for the traumatized in rural Connecticut.
This psychological part is middling to mediocre, with several problems. It is not much good.
Abnormal psychology was becoming more fashionable in mystery fiction in this era.
Its publisher the Crime Club, marketed this book under its category
"Character and Atmosphere", an indication that what Bill Pronzini calls
the "character-driven novel" was already a mystery category in the 1940's.
These sections have a few HIBK features, including an upper middle class setting
among genteel New Englanders, a country house and servants, but are not a typical HIBK work.
Upper middle class New Englanders return with the heroine and her friends in The Face of Hate.
The Connecticut setting is full of not-bad traditional New England atmosphere, including some vivid nature writing.
The walk through the countryside is especially well done (Chapter 7). The decaying fall vegetation
and moody atmosphere anticipate the dockside opening chapter of The Face of Hate.
Both episodes are full of menace, and show the author's writing skills.
The characters have a taste for what might be classified as "highbrow fantasy". They read Thorne Smith.
And have an evening's entertainment reading aloud Christopher Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus.
Other Theodora Du Bois novels refer to highbrow fantasy:
- In The Face of Hate, the Inland Waterway locale is compared by a character
to a fairy setting out of Lord Dunsany.
- The Body Goes Round and Round (Chapter 9) refers to playwright Ferenc Molnar,
also a literary writer who sometimes includes fantasy.
- In Death Comes to Tea (start of Chapter 11), the characters indulge in
a bit of science fiction whimsy about the mythological characters in Wagner's opera Die Walküre.
The reading of Doctor Faustus shows us how intellectual
these characters are. While Theodora Du Bois is not a member of the Van Dine school, she shares the
highly intellectual characters and love of culture found in the Van Dineans.
The doctor sleuth Jeffrey McNeill is head of a medical school at an unnamed University,
and we get an interesting visit to one of their facilities. In real life,
Theodora Du Bois and her husband were long time residents of New Haven, Connecticut,
home of Yale University.
Depictions of politics and minorities are mixed. Some things are good.
There is a chilling portrait of the anti-Semitism of a European bad guy (Chapter 8).
This comments on the war in Europe, and the persecution of Jews under Hitler.
Less successful is the negatively portrayed Lesbian housekeeper - shades of Rebecca! This is a bad flaw.
The author also teases us with suggestions that the male ballet dancer is gay, before reassuring us that he has a crush
on the beautiful woman that runs the half-way house. He is shown to be hysterical, panicky, and kept out of
the Army during World War II because of something unspecified in his "history". This too is stereotype.
The heroine-narrator describes how she writes up notes for the case (start of Chapter 14).
These notes sound like an outline for the novel. Some of these notes are included in the chapter.
One wonders if one is actually reading some of Theodora Du Bois' original outline for the book.
See this list of Outlines Within Mystery Novels by other writers.
The Face of Hate
The Face of Hate (1948) is an unpleasant mystery. Unlike some of Theodora Du Bois' earlier books,
it has very little science. Instead, the emphasis is on characters' psychological problems, and suspense.
Best feature as a detective story: the first killing is eventually traced to a
Least Likely Suspect. This fooled me. The identity of the victim was also a surprise.
The role of her detectives the McNeills has been reduced, to make room for
grim suspense scenes involving a young woman who keeps getting in jeopardy.
Also unlike earlier books, Anne McNeill is no longer the narrator.
Instead, the novel is told in the third person, often from the Point of View of the young woman.
We also read that while sleuth Jeffrey McNeill used to be a surgeon, that in recent years
he has transferred to psychiatric work. This parallels the change (and decline) of the
Theodora Du Bois books from Scientific Detection to psychological mysteries.
Although there are two separate attempts to kill the young heroine in the opening chapters,
for some reason she refuses to tell the police or Coast Guard about this,
apparently feeling this would be awkward or a social faux pas! This is ridiculous in the extreme.
More seriously, we get more portraits of New England intellectuals having emotional problems,
nervous breakdowns, and dysfunctional behavior as they drop out of society to try to recover their
emotional balance in a rural area. These recall the similar drop-outs at the rural
halfway house clinic in The Case of the Perfumed Mouse. Both in The Face of Hate
and the psychological sections of The Case of the Perfumed Mouse,
this makes depressing reading.
The Face of Hate has a boating Background, as the characters sail down the Inland Waterway
along the US Atlantic coast. I like some of the nature descriptions in the first chapter.
But otherwise, I just couldn't get interested in all the boating details in The Face of Hate.
Theodora Du Bois and her husband were reportedly boaters in real life.
Oddly, given the interest in science in other Theodora Du Bois,
few of the boaters in The Face of Hate seem to have radio on board, or at the dock areas.
Being a boater instead means one is cut off from communication from the outside world,
a fact that plays a role in the suspense in the first chapter.
As far back as Death Dines Out (1939), we learn that the McNeills had rented
a sailboat for the summer. But sailing plays almost no role in that novel.
It's Raining Violence
It's Raining Violence (1949) has a memorable title.
It suggests some no-holds-barred Mickey Spillane style conflict between a tough private eye
and the underworld. Actually, the actual novel It's Raining Violence is utterly unlike this.
It mainly takes place among genteel characters, is mostly comic, and there is
very little violence!
This book was later republished in 1969 as a paperback "gothic", as Money, Murder and the McNeills.
The innocent young heroine in trouble and eerie goings-on around a mansion are indeed features
anticipating the "gothic novel" craze of the 1960's. The paperback billed Theodora Du Bois as the
"Wizard of the Literate Gothic".
An Eccentric Upper Class Family
Such Ngaio Marsh novels as
Death of a Peer (1940) and Colour Scheme (1943) deal with eccentric, comic families,
who mix refinement, an upper class background and outrageous, over-the top behavior and attitudes, to comic effect.
It's Raining Violence is likely inspired by such books.
The family in It's Raining Violence has a little of the outrageous eccentricity and bad behavior
of the family in Death of a Peer. And they have the reduced-to-genteel-poverty
life of the family in Colour Scheme.
Unfortunately, It's Raining Violence is also a psychological novel, of sorts.
The family members in It's Raining Violence are portrayed as being
psychologically dysfunctional, in a way not seen in Marsh's more purely comic,
non-psychological books. An aching sense of personal, economic and social failure also
pervades It's Raining Violence. All of these aspects sink It's Raining Violence
as a fun read. Thinking about these characters and their failed lives can be depressing.
It is not light-hearted entertainment. Still, the family members have a certain appeal.
Also spoiling the fun: the opening financial swindle in It's Raining Violence
is cruel. Anyone who would do this is mean-spirited. It is hard to like characters
who might have taken part in this.
The family in It's Raining Violence recalls other groups of demoralized, dysfunctional intellectuals
in Theodora Du Bois. As in The Case of the Perfumed Mouse,
we have a group of failed, emotionally disturbed intellectuals, living in full retreat from the world,
all together in a genteel house.
The books differ in that the people in The Case of the Perfumed Mouse
are unrelated folks, all patients in a sort of half-way house for traumatized intellectuals;
while those in It's Raining Violence are family members who have retreated
to their decaying mansion.
The intellectuals in It's Raining Violence differ from those in some other
Theodora Du Bois books, in that the book suggests that they would be happier in more commercial,
less highbrow careers. The various failed intellectual professions / proposed commercial jobs
have interest (second half of Chapter 5, Chapters 6, 7).
The characters in The Case of the Perfumed Mouse
are reading Doctor Faustus, those in It's Raining Violence are staging
group readings of Nicholas Rowe's play The Fair Penitent (1702) for their evening's entertainment.
Theodora Du Bois was a playwright as well as a mystery novelist, and these books
have prominent references to plays. Gilbert and Sullivan are much quoted in
It's Raining Violence.
Both novels are full of intellectual references by the characters.
Anne McNeill has a surrealist portrait in her modernist house.
It is startling, and evokes both negative and positive comments from visitors.
The young-woman-in-trouble is an art student, and occasionally launches into sophisticated
discussions of modern art. Paul Klee is mentioned as an abstract artist.
A discussion of a historical novel-mystery hybrid that one of the characters wrote, and failed to get
published, has some originality (second half of Chapter 5). Today historical mysteries are common;
in 1949 they were really scarce. Theodora Du Bois herself wrote both historical novels and mysteries.
There is a good mystery involving motive: why is the swindle committed?
It's Raining Violence shows ingenuity, finding a hidden explanation.
SPOILER. The choice of killer is surprising. Both here and in The Face of Hate,
Theodora Du Bois has a flair for the Least Likely Suspect. Unfortunately, one reason
that I didn't suspect the choice of killer in It's Raining Violence
is that it's so darn implausible. This person just wouldn't engage in this sort
of criminal activity. It's out of character. And what is being risked by this person
is not worth the possible gain.
There are some fair play clues to the killer, concealed in the novel,
and revealed by the sleuth at the end. A couple of these are quite good.
Poor and Unfair: the subplot about the footprints. SPOILER. Although much is made of this,
the prints turn out to have nothing to do with the murder! They are also
rather "unfair", in that they focus our attention on the house, and suggest that the killer must be
involved with the prints and the related evidence in the house.
The real killer in fact has nothing to do with all this. Even worse: it would not have been possible
for this real killer to be involved with the prints, thus making the killer look "innocent".
This unfairly distracts the reader from the real killer.
Unlike some other late Theodora Du Bois books, there is only a little about boats and
sailing in It's Raining Violence:
The young woman art student recalls the young woman professional artist in
Death Dines Out.
- One of the brothers makes his living in the seafood business, fishing for crabs.
- Another brother is obsessed with boating.
The financial firm recalls the Wall Street financiers in Death Dines Out.
President Truman's negative remarks (1948) about Congressional committees investigating Communists
are briefly mentioned (end of Chapter 14). Truman dismissed them as a "red herring".
Theodora Du Bois would write a whole book about such committees in Seeing Red (1954).
One also wonders if the fictitious play mentioned in It's Raining Violence, titled Turn the Red Coat,
might be referring to Communist "turncoats" (traitors). But its subject matter is not made clear.
High Tension (1950) is a non-series suspense novel. I didn't like it at all.
Murder Mystery: Not Mysterious
High Tension starts out like a murder mystery. One of the characters is killed, and we don't know by whom.
And it is not until much later that we get a definitive answer to who killed him.
Sounds like a murder mystery, right?
However, most readers are going to guess right away who the killer is, and all the other facts about the crime.
It really seems obvious. And sure enough, later on we learn that everything we first guessed is true.
This approach seems deliberate by the author. The killing is not supposed to be genuinely
mysterious. Its solution is supposed to be obvious.
High Tension is basically a suspense novel, where the reader usually
knows and understands everything that is going on, or at least guesses the facts.
I'm not sure why Theodora Du Bois structured the novel this way. It seems pointless.
High Tension shows almost no mystery plot ingenuity or imaginativeness.
The politics of High Tension are weird - but without the compensating imaginativeness
that oddball writing sometimes provides.
SPOILERS. High Tension centers on an evil, radical political movement that is trying to take over
the United States. The book thoroughly condemns the group.
Implausibly, the movement combines elements of both Hitler-style Fascism and Communism. Its policies:
A problem: High Tension never recognizes that many non-Communist groups offer critiques of the wealthy.
Or that cooperation is also seen as a virtue by many non-Communists. It tars viewpoints many people share,
by linking them to Communist radicals.
- The group tirelessly criticizes the rich in its propaganda, something the book depicts as sinister.
Eventually, we learn the movement wants to execute all the rich people in the USA, and confiscate their money.
- The group sponsors many activities for under-privileged youth. These decry competition and
promote cooperation: something the novel implicitly views as Communist.
The book's most unusual section is the violent riot the radical group stages on Wall Street (Chapter 6).
Such a scene is rare, perhaps unique, in crime fiction. However, it is simple, un-detailed,
and offers little real insight.
The Rinehart Tradition
The radical group is mainly seen from outside. Most of the book's characters are either members of
a row of wealthy households in what seems to be Staten Island, or their servants. The head of the radical group
is living in one of the mansions in this upscale neighborhood.
The wealthy-and-their-servants cast
recalls Mary Roberts Rinehart. The row-of-mansions setting recalls
Rinehart's The Album (1933). This Rinehart-style look at the Old Money upper crust
is oddly juxtaposed with the book's political radicals.
Minorities: The Black Servants
The treatment of the black servants is full of oddities.
The elderly servant we first meet is depicted as gentle, sentimentally devoted to his "master",
Old-School-South in his training, and easily led to emotion.
This character, at least at first, reads like something out of a
painfully dated 1897 sentimental Southern novel about a planation. On the positive side,
he is not depicted in terms of such negative stereotypes as dumbness or laziness.
SPOILERS. Just when the reader has concluded that High Tension is painfully old-fashioned,
we meet the younger black butler next door. He is articulate, well-read, modern
and the product of Northern public schools and the library. He represents the modern side
and the educated contemporary black man. He is not sentimental at all, but rebellious
What's more, the two servants are friends and allies. We gradually learn about some rebellious sides
that the elderly servant has too. While he was devoted to his kindly employer,
he too is staunchly rebellious against the sinister goings-on of the novel's white villains.
In fact, the two black men wind up far more consistently resistant to the villains than any of
the often spineless white characters in the novel.
Seeing Red (1954) is the last crime novel about the McNeills.
It has two plot threads, that are not closely integrated.
Murder Mystery and Boating
One is a story about a murder investigation,
in which the McNeills once again get involved with detecting while on their boat.
This time the settings are islands and waterways near New York City.
I didn't find this mystery interesting.
Its best part is the initial look at the body (Chapter 2).
This has a decently drawn setting on a small island full of abandoned government buildings,
a real place called Swinburne Island. It is fairly near Theodora Du Bois' real-life home base of Staten Island.
The abandoned buildings, filled with old wreckage, are vividly portrayed. The real Swinburne Island
indeed contained such buildings, and one suspects one is seeing a portrait from life.
Facts not brought out in the novel: Swinburne Island is man-made, and looks like an elongated hexagon in shape in photos.
The other, far more substantial plot, involves the McNeills with the McCarthy era anti-Communist witch hunts.
The political half of Seeing Red is nightmarish. It harkens back to World War II,
when the McNeills worked on the Atomic Bomb. In the present day, it has Anne McNeill falsely accused
of being a Communist traitor and spy. Seeing Red thus takes on some of the most frightening
and harrowing aspects of modern American life. Anne McNeill is often in a state of deep fear,
something that the reader feels as well. It makes for unpleasant suspense.
Seeing Red shows Americans cowering in fear before anyone who cares
to throw accusations of being a Communist spy at them (Chapter 7). The words "witch hunt" are used to characterize the times,
and comparison is made to the Salem witch trials.
It shows the US Congress and its investigating committees being willing to give credence to any accusation,
however unsupported. No defense is possible: to be accused by a committee, is to be ruined, lose one's job or go to prison.
The finale takes the McNeills to an unwilling appearance before such a committee,
which is investigating Anne McNeill as a possible spy (start of chapter 15, Chapter 19).
The ironical outcome of the hearing paints a nasty picture of how such committees think.
The cross section of Americans discussing the accusation (Chapter 7) is the key section of the book.
It makes an ugly picture. Some of these people are conspicuously successful in their careers, others are relative failures.
All but two are deeply afraid. The chapter forms a kind of Socratic discussion, outlining various kinds
of responses to the McCarthy era, and debating the right kind of response to such accusations.
It is far more seethingly emotional than most Socratic debates, however.
The characters in the debate are mainly former members of the McNeills' old Atomic research unit.
This is another "group of educated people" in Theodora Du Bois, like the inhabitants of the half-way house in
The Case of the Perfumed Mouse. Once again, we get a skeptical portrait of the American intelligentsia,
with the characters discouraged and bordering on dysfunction.
I have mixed feelings about Seeing Red. It didn't add much to my understanding of the history
of the era. Furthermore, I am not a historian, and am unable to judge the accuracy of the book's depictions.
But it is one of the most political mystery novels of the 1950's. Its political chapters
will attract interest in anyone concerned with the intersection of the mystery and political commentary.
Other 1950's mysteries related in subject:
Seeing Red is a politically outspoken book. It does not seem to have been suppressed, however.
Instead, it soon was reprinted in paperback by a big name paperback publisher, Dell.
- Francis and Richard Lockridge's Death by Association (1952)
looks critically at both Communism and McCarthyism. A physics professor is fired as a security risk.
- Lawrence Blochman's Recipe for Homicide (1952) looks critically at Communism, with many perspectives.
- Ellery Queen's The Glass Village (1954) denounces the McCarthy-era witch hunts.
It does so allegorically, rather than with the literal depiction of the government in Seeing Red.
- Helen McCloy's The Long Body (1955) has a nuclear physics professor
fired as a possible Communist security risk. Earlier in McCloy's She Walks Alone (1948)
a socialist professor is blacklisted.
- Helen Reilly's The Canvas Dagger (1956) examines
sinister, frightening scientific research projects.
- Francis and Richard Lockridge's Accent on Murder (1958) has
comic-but-disturbing repeated references to top-secret high tech work done in the US Navy.
The spy plotting that gets Anne involved in these problems is never plausible. Among other things,
it depends on the FBI never keeping written records of its cases - something that seems unbelievable.
According to Seeing Red, once an FBI agent dies, all memory of his cases dies with him.
I found this hard to swallow. Even small town police forces keep records of routine burglaries.
Surely the FBI would keep written records of atomic espionage cases!