Theodora Du Bois | Continuing Characters
Novels: Death Dines Out | The Body Goes Round and Round | The Case of the Perfumed Mouse | The Face of Hate | It's Raining Violence | High Tension | Seeing Red
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The Case of the Perfumed Mouse (1944) (Chapters 1, end of 4, 7, 11, 16, 17)
Seeing Red (1954) (Chapters 2, 7)
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 Mystery*File.
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.
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:
There is some resemblance in Theodora Du Bois' books to the Rinehart school. Both 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 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.
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.
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 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.
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:
SPOILER. The crime is like the one in Death Dines Out. In both books:
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).
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 the discussion of The Murder of a Fifth Columnist (1941) by Leslie Ford, for a detailed list and study of "alternative communications" depicted in mystery fiction of this era.
Immediately following is a trip to an amusement park shuttered for winter (end of Chapter 8). 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 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.
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. The choice of the bad guy(s) at the end is weak: poorly clued and arbitrary. A clue about church bells is OK. 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. Also, 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.
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 characters have a taste for what might be classified as "high brow fantasy". They read Thorne Smith. And have an evening's entertainment reading aloud Christopher Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus. In Theodora Du Bois' later 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 refers to playwright Ferenc Molnar, also a literary writer who sometimes includes fantasy.
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.
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 borders on cliche.
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 idiotic in the extreme.
Oddly, given all 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.
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".
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 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 high brow 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.
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.
The financial firm recalls the Wall Street financiers in Death Dines Out.
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.
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.
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:
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 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.
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 and determined.
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.
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.
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: