The Book of the Dead, by Elizabeth Daly (1944)

16448692201_27a9e99821_bWARNING: This book is a classic work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book, although the identity of the murderer and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What’s this book about?

In an enigmatic introductory chapter, we meet a man who appears to be preparing his estate for his imminent death. Then as the story begins, an unsophisticated young dentist’s assistant named Idelia Fisher brings bibliophilic detective Henry Gamadge a book — and a mysterious situation. She has been vacationing with relatives in the village of Stonehill and takes a long walk to the old Crenshaw estate to sit in the orchard, since she believes the house to be empty since the death of old Mr. Crenshaw. But she meets a handsome forty-something gentleman who introduces himself as Howard Crenshaw and indicates that he’s here with a servant, Pike, to settle the estate. Howard likes to sit in the orchard and read, and he has been reading The Tempest and making penciled notes in the margins. He’s aroused Idelia’s romantic attentions and her general curiosity, and she spends enough time chatting with him in ensuing visits to learn that there’s something odd going on, especially as regards Howard’s relationship with the reclusive Pike.

Howard and Pike vanish without a word one evening (not perhaps to the reader’s great surprise).  Idelia is sufficiently interested to pick up a few little clues which include the volume of Shakespeare, from which the marginalia have been hastily erased. She believes that Gamadge can decipher the notes and make some sense of what has happened to Howard and so a few days later has brought him the volume and her story.

Gamadge speculates for a while on some possibly unsavoury explanations for Howard’s disappearance (for instance, drug addiction) but then agrees to make a few calls. Immediately he learns that Howard died at St. Damian’s nearby, only that morning, while under the care of a Dr. Billig — and he’s died of leukaemia. Henry Gamadge at this point has a strong feeling that something is going on that bears investigation and brings Idelia to identify the corpse; he wants to be sure the man she met is the one who died, and she agrees that the corpse is Howard. Gamadge then leaves Idelia in a drugstore and promises to return to her accommodations and update her, after he interviews Dr. Billig.

Dr. Billig is pleasant but odd and vaguely creepy, and definitely at the lower end of the medical profession, and tells Gamadge that he was hired after Howard had received his diagnosis in order to supervise his final weeks. (Leukaemia was incurable, rapid, and fatal in 1944.) Howard had been settling his affairs and paid very well, and in cash. Gamadge goes back to Idelia’s rooming house to fill her in on the details. He finds that someone has crushed her skull in the rooming house’s vestibule before she could use her key. Gamadge is shocked, rings the bell to bring attention to the corpse without involving himself, and goes home immediately — only to find an intruder in his own home, whom he eludes only by lightning-fast thinking and reacting. He yells out from a secure room that he is phoning the police, and the intruder flees unseen.

1004At this point, although we are not told so specifically, Gamadge decides that he is going to track down and arrest Idelia’s murderer personally; he is in a cold rage. He speaks with his friend Lieutenant Durfee about his break-in, and obliquely indicates that he was the bell-ringer who didn’t see any need to hang about. Durfee is curious but knows Gamadge well enough to let him have his head, it seems.  Gamadge arranges for a couple of off-duty detectives (who have the vital facilities of an automobile and gasoline, in wartime US) to go to Unionboro to immediately locate Pike and follow him. The plot begins to thicken. Mrs. Howard Crenshaw arrives, an unpleasant and wealthy woman who appears principally concerned with what the higher social echelons of her home town, a suburb of San Francisco, will think of her husband’s unorthodox decision to not expire at home and leave without telling her. Mrs. Crenshaw’s pretty niece Lucette, who has accompanied her to New York, picks this moment to announce that she’ll be remaining in New York after Mrs. Crenshaw leaves. (Due to wartime restrictions Mrs. Crenshaw must return immediately to California on the only train reservations she can obtain.)

Gamadge continues to investigate and has men following both Dr. Billig and Pike, as best they can — but he has vanished. Dr. Billig has a mysterious patient in a private care home; Gamadge investigates her. Meanwhile Pike has vanished and Gamadge makes his way to Unionboro. At this point it is probably best to draw a veil over the remainder of the action. I will merely say that Gamadge has been one or two steps ahead of the reader the whole time and assembled a stack of tiny, tiny little clues into the only solution that fits all the facts. He has observed, he has deduced, he has understood, and he has acted in a very satisfying manner to bring all crimes home to the guilty. And after the big reveal, there are a couple of ripples of the continuing story of the Gamadge household that are both unexpected and satisfying.

Why is this worth reading?

Elizabeth Daly was an unusual writer in one respect; she had her first writing success in 1940 at the age of 62 years. In the next eleven years until 1951, she wrote a total of 16 Henry Gamadge novels and then set writing aside. She received a special Edgar Award in 1960 for her body of work. And it is said — I’m unable to guarantee this, but it’s often repeated — that she was Agatha Christie’s favourite mystery writer. Until they were recently reissued on Kindle, her books were fairly scarce and her writing was rather neglected. In the 90s when she was out of print, I used to scrounge for used paperbacks from the 60s and be happy to get them to supply my customers.

But here I have to confess that for many years I never really “got” Elizabeth Daly. I used to find her work strangely lacking in some quality that I couldn’t identify; it was as though there was something missing that I personally required in order to find a book interesting, but for the life of me I couldn’t identify what wasn’t there.  The plots were clear and occasionally very clever, the characters were well-drawn, the writing was good, but I could never really get interested. My book-selling business required me to lead people to them, and I did with pleasure because she really is a very effective writer. But as recently as May, 2014 I called one of her books, Night Walk, “underwritten”.

The other day I reconnected with this novel, to my pleasure, and I finally realized why I have been mistakenly thinking these books are “underwritten”. It is true that there is a certain element within the novel that is very nearly entirely missing, but it’s finally occurred to me what exactly it is, and now I’m taking a much greater interest. What’s missing is that Daly doesn’t tell you how people feel — she only shows you.

51MzWDpEnrL._SX365_BO1,204,203,200_Perhaps it’s a sign of my inexhaustible appetite for low-grade fiction of many types, or perhaps it’s that I’m just not a very good reader. But I realized with this book that I am very accustomed, within the pages of a mystery, to be told how people feel. “He said angrily.” “She pursed her mouth in a moue of disappointment.” The language does more than half the battle of communicating the emotions that are associated with the particular scene in question. Sometimes authors will show and tell at the same time. “She drew her skirts more closely to herself, repulsed by the mud.” I gather that writing textbooks will tell you that show and tell is better than merely tell. But it is very, very difficult to merely show without telling; you have to be able to write at the level of a Hemingway to accomplish getting your story across and allowing the reader to realize the emotions that the characters are feeling without telling you what they are, or even really hinting at them.

Elizabeth Daly, however, leaves out a lot of the feelings. Above I remarked at a certain point in the plot that “although we are not told so specifically” Gamadge sets his jaw and wades in to find Idelia’s killer. I read the pages immediately following his discovery of her death very closely, and it doesn’t appear as though he says anything at all to indicate that he’s even concerned. Hardly a word of description beyond that he is “pale”. But we grasp, vaguely, that his friend Lieutenant Durfee is alarmed and concerned for Gamadge’s safety. A few scraps of observation by the author, but nothing like what it appears later has possessed him and caused him to investigate the crime like a man possessed.

Once I realized what was missing, I realized also that in my first pass through these books, I’d been more interested in timetables and clues than in emotions — as is frequently the way with murder mysteries. The pleasure that I shall now find is in going back and realizing what was going on before my eyes the whole time that I’d missed. For instance, there is a scene in this book where Gamadge is enjoying a fairly lighthearted moment with another character who has a life, and plans, and apparently very little interest in or connection to what’s going on. That character babbles on about their surroundings, and life in general, and a bit of ancient history, which is why you think the character is there (to provide a small clue). Much later in the book, we learn that that character was actually one of the prime movers of a fairly complex plot that required her to lie like a trooper throughout the whole conversation with Gamadge. The beautiful part of that is that — so was he. As the suspect comes to realize, Gamadge’s suspicions had already been aroused and he was already on the track of a certain kind of plot taking place in the background which is why he initiated the conversation in the first place. So the second time through the novel, it’s not a lighthearted moment with a minor character commenting about the geography of Manhattan. It’s two intelligent people with a hidden agenda who each think that they’re fooling the other, but only one actually is. And the book is full of these moments.  You’re not told what a character is feeling and thinking, all you get is what most people show the world. We realize that Mrs. Crenshaw is unpleasant because of the things she says and does, not because anyone calls her a bitch or slags her to Gamadge. This is fiction you actually have to work at rather than having it handed to you on a plate. Apparently I never used to work that hard at it, and I’m sorry; it’s worth working at.

The other reason that I very much enjoyed this book upon re-reading it is what I’ll call the Chekhovian nature of the clues. Not the Star Trek character, the Russian playwright. He’s reported to have said, “If there is a gun on the wall in act I, it had better go off in act III,” or words to that effect. I agree, and this has particular applicability to detective fiction. You have to put the gun on the wall and there has to be a reason the gun is on the wall, and that someone would notice it being on the wall without making too much of a point of it. And then you need to create a situation where one character has been brought to such an emotional pitch that the only thing to do is grab the gun off the wall … at which point the audience all realizes why it was there in the first place and gives an “ahhh” of satisfaction.

In this volume, at least, I can say that I noticed about two-thirds of the guns going up on the walls, in a natural and kind of homespun way. Daly has a nice way of planting clues so that they seem to look like other clues, or that your attention is being drawn to them for some other reason, or even that they are just idle prattle while something else happens. And since I had already noticed most of the clues, it was inviting to speculate about what they meant and why they were there. I managed to work that out with perhaps 75 percent accuracy and I don’t think an experienced mystery reader would have any less success.  It’s not terrifically hard to figure out what’s going on here, in broad strokes.

What really makes it work, and work beautifully, is two things. The first is that the clues are planted and then paid off in a very professional manner. It’s rather like the clues go in in ABCDEFG order and come out GFEDCBA. The guns go up on the wall and get fired in reverse order; last in, first out. (I won’t swear to this, but if it’s not accurate, it’s close.) I can say that the experience of having one of the very earliest clues in the book, within the first couple of pages, pay off at the very end of the book, was very satisfying indeed. I had completely missed it and it was delightful to find out just how well I’d been hoodwinked. The other thing that makes it work is that the ending is a complete surprise to the guilty; the blow-off scene, where Gamadge interrupts a dinner engagement with a couple of authoritative witnesses, is really well handled because the murderer is taken completely by surprise, and that just feels really good to this reader. A nice young woman got murdered for no really good reason, and the payback is sweet indeed.

I’m glad to know that even after more than 40 years of familiarity with the way that mysteries work, I can find something new and interesting, a deeper and more profound way in which to experience the work of a writer. I recommend this book to you for many reasons, but with any luck you will grasp what it is you need to do and develop a new tool with which to look at fiction. It doesn’t get much more useful than that.

5361508465_7b668b5b75My favourite edition

I first encountered this story in the lurid Bantam edition you see here and I will continue to have a fondness for it. It’s almost as though this literate and bibliophilic mystery is being sold despite its cover rather than because of it. And just a little leg art to make it stand out on the shelves. A close second, though, is the muddy and unpleasant green/brown Berkley offering at the head of this review; also not revealing very much of anything that actually occurs in the book, and giving absolutely none of its flavour.

In terms of value, you can have a modern trade paper edition, used, a Kindle edition, or any of the vintage paperbacks shown here for about $10 plus shipping, as of today’s date. A VG copy in jacket of the first edition will cost you $150, and there is a peculiar omnibus edition of three Daly novels from 1960 that seems to have excited the avarice of book dealers; one wants $185 for a Fine in jacket copy.

7 thoughts on “The Book of the Dead, by Elizabeth Daly (1944)

  1. JJ says:

    What you say here about the emotions reminds me of why I can’t get on with Dashiell Hammett; in The Maltese Falcon he’s always telling you what people do but never what they think or feel, like he’s sat in the room with his characters and is simply writing it down for posterity. Once I realised that, I couldn’t get it out of my head and it ended up proving more distracting than atmospheric. At least Daly has some adverbs to clue you in! Another great analysis, Noah, didn’t realise Daly was available on Kindle – shall check her out forthwith.

  2. I have only had the one encounter with the author, the underwhelming NOTHING CAN RESCUE ME. I take your point about her lack of emotive description, but I am struggling, in the context of that book, to see how this was in any way a virtue and the foreshadowing of the clues was, in that case, pretty darn clunky. This one sounds much more interesting Noah and it is a great pleasure to re-read an author and find your opinion changed positively – I’ll definitely keep an eye out for this one – thanks.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      I’m still trying to figure out whether leaving out the emotive content makes a “better” or “worse”mystery. But I will say this, it makes it more difficult to solve. You have to work out the emotional state that suspects are displaying and then see if there’s anything you’ve been shown that makes that less or more believable. In some scenes in this novel, suspects are lying to Gamadge and he knows it, but the reader will not unless s/he is paying close attention. It’s all there for you if you can figure it out from the scanty clues.

  3. lesblatt says:

    Must admit this is my favorite Daly book, Noah, largely for the reasons you mention. I enjoy a book – and there aren’t many of them – where the author keeps you so diligently hunting for clues that you never realize you’ve been solving the wrong puzzle. I was had, most elegantly, by this book.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      I was on the lookout for her little tiny clues and did fairly well, but the “matchbook” slid right past me, and delighted me at the end. And I was also pleased and surprised by Dr. Billig’s new employment at the end of the novel. A pleasant way to write “finis”. I think Daly does make it more difficult by not alerting you to people’s emotional states but it just makes the experienced puzzle-solver work harder.

  4. I read this a year or two ago, and enjoyed it very much – I particularly liked the sinister and creepy clinic. I found your exposition immensely helpful and illuminating – I intend to read more by her soon, and will certainly be holding your ideas in my head to examine while reading.

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