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.

Men Die At Cyprus Lodge, by John Rhode (1943)

3034156528WARNING: 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 other significant details are not revealed. This book is very rare and it is possible that you may never see a copy in your lifetime; you may feel that information about a book you’ll never be able to read is worth any potential spoiling of your enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What’s this book about?

The little village of Troutwich is crowded with war workers connected with a training base on its outskirts, but no one ever seems to want to rent Cyprus Lodge until Colonel and Mrs. Guestwick, bombed-out Londoners, find it suitable. The rumours of ghosts are nonsense, of course, everyone agrees. A middle-aged pork butcher died there in the last century, but people who report hearing the jingling of the coins in his pockets or the sound of his wooden garden clogs echoing off the tiled floor are considered, at least for public consumption, to be delusional. The house’s history includes having been used as a house of ill repute, at least until the police shut it down, and then a homeopathic doctor took the place and lasted two years — until he was found dead in the dining room, poisoned by taking aconite. He wasn’t well known in the village, and it’s considered to have been an unexplained suicide.

As the Colonel and his household are about to move in, Troutwich is receiving official scrutiny because there appears to be enemy espionage going on in the village; events at what is hinted to be more than a simple training camp are being passed to the enemy on a regular basis. Series detective Jimmy Waghorn (here using the pseudonym James Walters and purporting to be from the Ministry of Coordination) comes to investigate the espionage, and stands by as the local constabulary look through the empty house and find nothing.

4740105709However, local squire Sir Philip Briningham has made a hobby of investigating haunted houses. When the Guestwicks and their servants report hearing the ghostly clogs and jingling coins, they think it’s some kind of joke. But when a mysterious voice says “Beware of the Monk’s Hood,” they seek official help. Sir Philip is asked to take a hand and is anxious to assist with the local haunted house. Monkshood, the officials know, is the source plant for aconite, so perhaps this has something to do with the homeopath’s suicide. Sir Philip determines that he’ll spend the night in the house alone. When he does so, all the spooky effects obligingly appear, but in the light of day, he and the officials realize that the production of the effects appears to be connected with a sealed-off cupboard. A small group assembles to open the cupboard and, sure enough, the investigators discover a mysterious panel which, when opened, reveals a grinning skull. As Sir Philip reaches in and pulls on the skull to remove it, a group of sharp objects fall from the top of the recess. One of them stabs Sir Philip in the wrist — and he dies almost immediately of aconite poisoning.

The modern reader will, of course, recognize the basic Scooby-Doo plot; someone is creating these supernatural effects for a purpose, and another plot twist has generated the underlying motive. With the occasional assistance of Dr. Priestley and Superintendent Hanslet, Jimmy Waghorn investigates the history of the house and many of the inhabitants of the village, including local shopkeepers and the late Sir Philip’s family. Then there’s another murder using aconite in the vicinity of the spooky old house. Although Jimmy gets it wrong, events unfold in such a way that the true engineer of the plot is revealed in a surprising conclusion. In the final chapter, the senior series detective Dr. Priestley explains why his occasional comments were misinterpreted and tells Jimmy why he should have brought the crimes home to the real criminal.

2759Why is this worth reading?

Recently I remarked that John Rhode (a pseudonym of Major Cecil Street, who also published extensively as Miles Burton) and E. C. R. Lorac were the two Golden Age detective writers most unjustly overlooked by modern-day publishers, and a comprehensive reprinting is certainly in order. Both have very large backlists — essential to the publisher who wishes to entice a paperback audience with a large plot of undiscovered new ground. Major Street published four novels in 1943 alone and more than 140 titles in total; an astonishingly large body of work.

Curtis Evans devoted a huge amount of work and thought to Maj. Street’s writing in his  Masters of the ‘Humdrum‘ Mystery; if you really want to know everything there is to know about John Rhode, both the man and his work, that volume is the place to start and probably finish. But just to hit the high spots; Julian Symons, in his volume (Bloody Murder) looking at the history of detective fiction, classified certain early writers as “Humdrums” — because their focus was the puzzle plot, rather than meeting Symons’ preference for “stylish writing and explorations of character, setting and theme”. In 1972 when first published, Symons’ opinion led critical thought. However, today the wheel has spun and many critics and literary historians are today finding that John Rhode and the rest of the Humdrums did precisely what they set out to do and did it well.  We are now learning that Symons may not have delved very deeply into a school of writing that he simply didn’t like, and that there is plenty of interest in these books about the social context against which they are set, and even the occasional piece of artistic writing. If you’re interested in the Golden Age of Detection, John Rhode is certainly worth investigating.

That being said, this novel is not excellent but merely competent and intelligent. I think my readers will agree that the story hook is very strong. Ghostly hugger-mugger in a spooky house is music to the ears of the GAD aficionado, since we all know that the detectives will ultimately reveal that a nefarious character has been producing supernatural effects in order to keep people away from some sort of criminal activity. Scooby-Doo, Shaggy and the rest of the Mystery Machine gang solved that crime many times, unmasking kindly old storekeeper Mr. Hooper as the Glowing Ghost who was trying to keep the uranium mine all to himself, or whatever. The stakes here are heightened by the fact that nosy people don’t just run away screaming and phone Daphne and Velma for help, they fall down dead from aconite poisoning.  When Sir Philip exposes the fakery but dies in the process, the reader’s attention is firmly locked in place; this unexpected development kicks the interest up a notch.

That’s where everything pretty much grinds to a halt, though. Jimmy Waghorn investigates, certainly, and meets a wide range of characters connected with the late Sir Philip and the town’s tradespeople and police officers. We learn the details of how information is casually mentioned in the local pub by off-duty servicemen, and Jimmy realizes — or is told by higher authorities — that the information must be being transmitted somehow to a person who takes it to Ireland, whereupon it makes its way to Germany. (We never quite get the details of this; the author merely invokes “security” and saves himself the trouble of thinking something up.) But nothing much really happens until a second murder, and Jimmy Waghorn is still completely baffled. The astute reader, meanwhile, testing his/her wits against those of the investigators, will have realized the obvious investigatory course for the officials, which is twofold. They should follow anyone who sets foot anywhere near Cyprus Lodge and investigate them intensively, and meanwhile they should be looking into the history of everyone who’s had anything to do with the place since the death of the original pork butcher. Had they done so, this book would have been much more brief and simple.

2760Apparently the lack of investigatory power has to do with the war, of course. And this book has a constant element of the war as a background — easy to understand for a book that was published in 1943. The details range from small to large. For instance, one hard-working shopkeeper re-uses a piece of glass and constructs a frame for it out of scrap wood, to replace the smashed window of his tobacco shop, because a large pane of glass simply cannot be had in wartime England. A pub keeper mentions that although his customer base is thriving due to the nearby training base, he isn’t profiting unduly because he’s only allowed a certain amount of beer per month to serve all his customers, and so he must balance the needs of the soldiers against those of his long-time customers.  The ubiquitous blackout curtains prevent people from seeing any mysterious figures moving around in the dead of night. And everyone accepts the presence of Jimmy Waghorn because he says he’s with the Ministry of Coordination; if the Ministry were to open a small facility in Troutwich, Cyprus Lodge would be ideal, and so he can poke through the house to his heart’s content. There is a secondary plot strand, wherein the late Sir Philip’s relatives are suspects because they inherit his estate.  The heir is maintaining his manor as an open house for the officer class of the training base because his father would have wanted it that way (and, of course, this alerts the reader to the possibility that the espionage originates in the manor house as the officers play billiards and casually talk about the day’s events).

But the espionage plot has the defects of its virtues. If the war permeates the fabric of the village to such an extent, then the information leaks must be more crucial; surely they can spare a couple of police officers from patrolling for cracks of light from blackout curtains to keep an eye on people surreptitiously dodging in and out of Cyprus Lodge. And if the appropriate Ministry truly wanted to find out the trail of the information leaks, they surely would have asked Dr. Priestley to take a more active role, rather than merely bringing in Jimmy Waghorn, a complete doofus, on a part-time basis. (At one point near the finale, Jimmy actually thinks casually that if he runs into the individual who turns out to be the murderer in the course of some late-night investigations, he’s going to take that person into his confidence so that the real murderer can be identified. D’oh!) Either the espionage is important or it’s not. For the purposes of keeping the novel afloat, it seems to be only important so far as it baffles Jimmy and forms the background for Act II up to the midpoint of Act III. The way Dr. Priestley talks in the final chapter, he would have solved the murders in about 20 minutes after he arrived, by focusing official attention on the correct aspects of everyone’s history and background. I agree, and that just points out that Act II and most of Act III for this novel are padded like a Canadian winter jacket.

This is not a terrible idea, considering that John Rhode is a writer who knows how to hold an audience. The characterization is subtle but good. Particularly noteworthy is a local tobacconist  who’s a member of a religious cult concerned with the Vision of the Great Prophet. Such cults are commonplace in GAD novels (off the top of my head, I can think of novels by Ngaio Marsh, Elizabeth Daly, Ellery Queen and Anthony Boucher that feature some variation on the theme) and this one is just as loony-tunes as the rest. The tobacconist, however, is the only really distinctive character; everyone else is average and everyday, going about their daily business and contributing to the war effort as best they can. But John Rhode was good at portraying this kind of person, especially military men. They may be reserved in demeanour, but they are consistent, honourable and stiff-upper-lipped Englishmen. Oddly, there are almost no female characters in this novel. I haven’t managed to read enough of Rhode’s work to know if this is a commonplace thing or unusual, but it’s worth noting. Dr. Priestley himself is very nearly completely offstage for the entire novel, popping up a couple of times to say enigmatic things and then to be a complete pain in the ass in the final chapter, waggling his finger and saying, tsk, tsk, you should have listened to me more carefully. Apparently Rhode thinks we know him sufficiently well from other novels; I didn’t, but that’s what seems to be being conveyed here.

I think Rhode’s real skill in this novel is with dialogue, which is not something that often calls itself to my attention. There are subtle differences in the language used by various characters that let you know from what stratum of society they come; really well done here. Other writers, particularly Dorothy L. Sayers, make the speech of members of the lower classes that of illiterate bumpkins with what a dear friend of mine, the late mystery writer Greg Kramer, used to call “ha’penny-tuppenny fortnight come Michaelmas” dialogue. But here the speech patterns of everyone concerned are not all that different. Shopkeepers, indeed, seem upwardly mobile — as though they’re trying to improve themselves — and the lords of the manors are more egalitarian. Perhaps this is a wartime thing, and it makes analysis difficult, but it’s more true to life, I think.

For the pleasure of the reading public, particularly my friends who enjoy good Golden Age of Detection work, I certainly hope John Rhode comes back into print soon. I have the feeling that if it were possible for me to read 60 or 70 of his novels, it may well be that I would draw different conclusions about the excellence of this particular volume. With what little I know, and my experience with this kind of novel, I think I’d give this one a B+ and look for better work from the same author.

My favourite edition

The illustration at the top of this post is the cover of Collins White Circle Canada #274; I used my own copy of this book, in much better condition, as the basis for this review. Although I’ve always had a certain fondness for the “green ghost” Crime club edition pictured here, the CWCC edition is delightfully — well, I think the word is “lurid”. The background is a greyish shade of mustard, which makes the black/green cypress trees and touches of dusty brick red in the house stand out. The publishers wanted this to scream off the shelves, and it certainly does. My own copy is in Very Good condition, holding together physically better than is often the case with CWCC books, and if I were to sell it — which I have no plans to do, since it’s so scarce — I think I’d price it at $60 to $75.

Of the nine copies today available on ABEBooks, the cheapest is an ex-library copy of CWCC #274 at $28 plus shipping, fit only for reading or filling a hole in a run of John Rhode, and a first edition in jacket will set you back more than $600. Like so much of Rhode, this is a rare and expensive book in any condition and any edition.

Night Walk, by Elizabeth Daly (1947)

Night Walk, by Elizabeth Daly (1947)

daly night walk

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. 

8507630714It’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.

9781631940002_p0_v1_s260x420Why 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.