Night Walk, by Elizabeth Daly (1947)
Author: Elizabeth Daly is a Golden Age mystery writer who was not successful until later in life; her first Henry Gamadge mystery was published when she was 62. Daly went on to write a total of 16 volumes in 11 years and then packed it in, possibly due to exhaustion; it’s frequently observed, upon no evidence that I can find, that she was Agatha Christie’s favourite mystery writer.
Publication Data: First edition Rinehart & Co., New York, 1947, under their “Murray Hill” imprint. Other editions include Berkley Medallion F811, seen above, in which a Cosmo-style girl from 1963 is either sleepwalking or trying to find her Vespa without looking. It’s not entirely clear to me if she represents someone in the book. A couple of other paperback editions exist; for instance, this is #55 in what I call the “puzzleback” series from Dell in 1982. (See Collector’s Notes below.) There is a 2013 edition from Felony and Mayhem that is in a very attractive uniform trade edition.
This is the 12th of 16 Henry Gamadge mysteries; Gamadge specializes in analysis of questioned documents, forged books, etc., and frequently solves murders that are related somehow to documents and books.
About this book:
Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read might discuss in explicit terms the solution to this murder mystery and will certainly give away large chunks of information about its plot and characters. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply.
It’s not absolutely clear to me where the town of Frazer’s Mills is, but it’s close enough to New York City to make a convenient location for an upscale “rest home” called Edgewood. The proprietor, Miss Studley, wouldn’t like you to describe it as a rest home, and its guests are not patients. (Alcoholics, addicts, “mental cases and people likely to depress other people” are not accepted.) Edgewood is where you go to get away from it all, and apparently pay a hefty price for the privilege.
On Labor Day weekend in 1946, a young man named Yates tells some little white lies and wheedles his way into renting a room at Edgewood because all hotels in a wide radius are full. That’s the night that … well, how shall we put this? Weird things begin to happen in Frazer’s Mills. First, old Mrs. Norbury at Edgewood sees someone open her bedroom door just a crack, and then close it again and vanish. A similar thing then happens with an outer door at the local library, and Miss Bluett, the librarian, thinks someone tried the latch and then vanished into the rhododendrons. Next, while Yates is alone in his room, someone quietly tries the door and finds it locked, and then vanishes. Yates steps into the hallway to see what’s going on, and sees that someone has taken a short fire axe from its accustomed place and left it lying by the staircase. Nothing specific, but certainly creepy, right? This worries him enough to go to Miss Studley and investigate things with her, and when it becomes clear that she’s going to mention it to the not-very-local constabulary, he fesses up to his fibs told in aid of having a place to sleep that night.
At the nearby Carrington house, Lawrence and his sister Lydia have been phoned by Miss Studley about the possibility of a prowler, but they don’t take it too seriously. Their invalid father upstairs, and father’s ward, quirky chess prodigy Rose Jenner, and the local librarian’s antics, occupy their minds much more. When Rose returns from a date (as we later learn, with Yates; she’s the reason he’s in the neighbourhood), she hears the story of a “madman” and goes upstairs to check on her guardian. He’s dead, and a bloodstained log of wood lies nearby. But the madman doesn’t stop there; next a visiting high-school boy has a close encounter with an invisible stranger, and finally Miss Bluett is bashed with a log at the library and killed.
Yates calls in Henry Gamadge, who takes a room at Edgewood masquerading as a patient. Gamadge strolls around the town and talks to people in a gentle, seemingly unfocused way. Gamadge specializes in noticing tiny, inconsequential things and putting together a picture, bit by bit. Here, he soon discovers a hidden relationship between two people who appear not to know each other; next he investigates the activities of some Frazer’s Mills townspeople who have a plausible story to explain events that turns out to be false in tiny particulars. Finally Henry Gamadge works out exactly why things have been happening; this is nowhere near what people have been assuming. Indeed, Gamadge identifies the murderer and sets a trap that results in a hasty suicide.
Why is this book worth your time?
Although this book certainly held my attention, and I could say it was even gripping at times, when I finished I had an odd sense of … slightness. This book is tiny and graceful and spare at 157 paperback pages; perhaps 45,000 words, by my guess, and is about a third the size of, say, the latest Elizabeth George opus. And there is almost nothing extraneous in this book. The scene is set; when Gamage arrives, he sorts out one extraneous sub-plot and then hones in precisely on whodunit. There’s very little description, there’s very little characterization, and indeed very little of anything at all.
Nevertheless, as I said, this is a book I didn’t want to stop reading. The scene-setting chapters, in which the vaguely creepy things are happening — wonderful stuff. Honestly, Daly gets more out of a door opening a crack and then closing again than many modern writers can get with, just to make something up off the top of my head, disemboweling an animal on the front porch. The atmosphere is creepy and unsettling. Even though we’ve been told that none of the patients are likely to be crazy, has someone made it through the screening process, just like young Mr. Yates managed to weasel through? The background of Frazer’s Mills is given in just enough detail to make it interesting; this is a quiet backwater, the descendants of wealthy people and their servants. These people are living quiet lives, some on the verge of poverty. The experienced mystery reader will be looking at the Carrington family closely, since the deceased Mr. Carrington had money; but it doesn’t seem that anyone was sufficiently anxious to inherit it to commit murder.
Once the solution is revealed, I had the thought that this was something I call a “snow globe” mystery (another idiosyncratic definition, I’m sorry). A snow globe mystery, to me, is where you start with a set of facts and an explanation of those facts that makes sense. Then something happens to shake the snow globe — and all of a sudden the facts look completely different because the explanation of them has been turned upside down. In this particular book, it’s not completely unexpected (mostly because no mystery reader worth his/her salt would accept the “wandering madman” theory as being the final solution). But it is beautifully done and the new viewpoint takes a tiny fact that everyone had ignored and turns it into the crux of the matter. The murderer’s well-hidden motives become perfectly clear.
The writing style here is elegant, but somewhat underwritten. At times, I wanted Daly to have spent more time showing me buildings and locations, not necessarily because they were important to the mystery plot but because they might have helped me grasp what was going on a bit more clearly, to understand the people who lived in the buildings and walked through the locations. Mind you, I have a very clear grasp of the geography of Edgewood; unfortunately I didn’t get a deep impression of the personality of most of its inhabitants. As the plot progresses, it seems like writing about anything much except things that are crucial to the plot simply falls away. There were people in this novel about whom I wanted to know more, and now never will. At the same time, there is a tiny incident at the very end of the book that introduces a new character and provides some local colour — too late.
I believe that Elizabeth Daly is a significant name in the history of the American Golden Age mystery; perhaps not of the first rank, but a strong talent certainly deserving of the attention of readers who are interested in the byways as well as the highways. I wouldn’t necessarily suggest that you make this your first experience with this writer, but I expect that you will want to read them all sooner or later, and this will be an interesting, if a bit slight, experience for you along that path.
Notes for the Collector:
The most expensive copy I see available on the internet today is a Good first edition with a Fair+ jacket for $195. Someone is offering a curious volume which *might* be from a uniform edition owned by a member of Daly’s family, in full gilt ruled leather, for $143.75. A first without jacket in VG condition is selling for $95. This has been a relatively scarce title for years but is now back in print (thank you for your good work, Felony & Mayhem!) so there is not as much pressure for the few good copies on the market.
I personally think the most interesting edition is the Dell “Murder Ink” volume seen nearby, which is #55 in what I call the “puzzleback” series. These volumes have a uniform linking device of a missing puzzle piece on the front cover which is revealed on the back; the series was chosen by two mystery bookstore proprietors and its quality is uniformly high. I regard these as very collectible and relatively inexpensive. Unfortunately the cover art of this particular volume in the series comes rather close to giving away the entire plot and this, I think, is a serious error. Perhaps invest in this after you’ve read the Felony & Mayhem edition, which is very attractive. Berkley Medallion F811, from a few years earlier, is also quite funky and “50s moderne”.
2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:
This 1947 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; second under “E”, “One book with a time, day, month, etc. in the title;” I believe that “night” qualifies, since in context it refers to the time of day. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.
This is actually the first Daly book that I added to my collection–after discovering her in a tiny little public library in the tiny little town where my husband & I lived for our first year together. My edition is the funky “50s moderne” Berkeley. Since it’s one of my first Dalys and it came long before I ever started doing reviews on my books, I have very little recollection, so I’ve skimmed over your review until I have a chance to reread.
[…] she really is a very effective writer. But as recently as May, 2014 I called one of her books, Night Walk, […]