The Applegreen Cat, by Frances Crane (1943)

The Applegreen Cat, by Frances Crane (1943)

100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #006


Frances Crane, whose Wikipedia entry is found here. This volume is fourth in a series of 26 novels written between 1941 and 1965 featuring private investigator Pat Abbott and his co-investigating wife Jean.  The Abbotts were the subject of at least two radio programmes and probably three (this is VERY complicated — see Wikipedia for details). All 26 novels feature a colour in the title as a linking device for the series. Her reprint publishers, Rue Morgue, have contributed an extremely interesting in-depth biographical piece found here.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1943 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; first under “G”, “Read one book with a colour in the title.” For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.

Publication Data:

The first edition is from Lippincott, an American publisher, in 1943. (The jacket is below.) My own copy, seen at the top of this post, is the first paperback edition, Popular Library 344 (1951), with an exquisite cover by Rudolph Belarski that has been repurposed from the cover of a pulp magazine (also see below). Other editions exist, including an edition from Hammond, an appearance as one of three volumes in a Detective Book Club edition, and a 2011  paper edition from Rue Morgue Press, to whom we should be indebted; they’re republishing a bunch of Frances Crane, among other good works.

910About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read is likely to discuss in explicit terms the solution to a murder mystery. 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. 

Jean Abbott, the narrator, and her detective husband Pat, are in England, and visiting Stephen Heywards’ country house, which also contains a gaggle of visitors and staff. Pat can only be persuaded to take time off his mysterious but apparently crucial war work with the prospect of seeing the Heywards’ Renoirs. It’s wartime, of course, and everything is rationed — which is why it’s so peculiar that an under housemaid, Elsie, is wearing an exquisite pair of nylon stockings that are unavailable to her social betters.  That phrase isn’t used, but it’s very clear how everyone feels. Wartime Britain hadn’t lost any of its embedded class consciousness, it seems. Jean sees Elsie that night, just before she is going out on a date; by chapter 3, Elsie’s dead body is discovered in a punt. On her body is a dart that can be identified as having come from the manor house, because it has been marked with a “transfer from a kids’ book” of an applegreen cat. So the murderer comes from the manor house. And it soon becomes clear that everyone thinks that Elsie has been strangled by mistake instead of Lorna Erickson, “whose stunning beauty and feline malice made her unanimously feared and hated”.  (That’s a rather florid quotation from the back cover of the paperback edition.) 

Almost immediately, another murder attempt takes the life of the head housemaid, a secret tippler who cannot resist having a pull from a bottle of whiskey that has been adulterated with a huge dose of morphine.  Was the whisky intended for Lorna? Hard to say. At this point the book grinds to a screaming halt — Jean is not really in the picture as the police, and her husband, question the suspects one by one. So we are treated to a series of chapters very much like the habitual pattern of Ngaio Marsh, where one by one the potential suspects display their motives, past, and personalities, each to a boring, talky, overwritten chapter. Tennis is played — women’s clothing is observed. Gossip is exchanged, and some characters reveal things about themselves and their past that sane people being investigated as potential murderers would probably prefer to keep considerably more quiet. Jean manages to dig out nearly everything that the reader might consider important or useful about every suspect; that is, if your interest is interpersonal relationships rather than the niceties of who gives who an alibi and how. Finally (the reader will have the sense at this point that this is a long, long overdue action) Lorna is found strangled, events come to a head, and the murderer confesses.

And I have to say, I’ve read a lot of murder mysteries — a LOT of murder mysteries — and the solution to this mystery asks us to believe one of the most ridiculous motives for murder I have ever been asked to accept, and that’s saying something. (Okay, there’s that Agatha Christie where the woman wants to open a tea shop. But that’s about it.) Really, it’s as though Crane realized that she had to tie this off to get in under her word count, so she picked the least likely suspect, provided a hastily-conceived motive, and wrote “the end” with an air of triumph. I cannot accept that there is a person in the world who would commit three murders for this reason; I actually think this motive is not really sufficient to make someone quit their job or quarrel with a friend. Crane recognizes this, I think, and tries to add a few details here and there to make us think that the murderer is insane. But this is a kind of insanity that only really exists in murder mysteries that need a surprise ending; someone who hides their insanity under a mask of competence and does violent things for what are essentially ridiculous reasons.

Why is this book worth your time?

As you may have gathered by now, I don’t really think it is worth your time. Frances Crane wrote a number of good mysteries, but this is not one of them. There’s a serious flaw at the heart of this book; nothing is even remotely realistic. The wealthy squire with two Renoirs and a house full of ill-assorted, antagonistic guests have obviously been collected together for no other purpose than to draw gigantic sacks of red herrings across the trail of the crimes. When you find out the identity of the murderer, you will realize that the criminal events of the book could have been easily committed at a time when there were not nine or ten extraneous guests in the house and, since there is no rational reason for the murderer’s actions, almost anyone else in the vicinity would have been more readily suspected. Crane has to go to great lengths to prevent her narrator from learning anything useful or relevant in time for it to matter, including locking her in her bedroom at a crucial point. The characters lie when it makes the book more interesting and tell the truth when it’s time for things to move forward.

Elsewhere I have retold an antique joke that is funny to seven-year-olds. “What has four legs, wags its tail, and is filled with cement? A dog.” “But a dog isn’t filled with cement!” “Oh, I just put that in to make it harder.” This book is so encased in cement that the reader soon realizes that all the characters frozen in that cement to the hips are made of cardboard. The dog beneath the cement is a mutt who has been bedizened with ribbons, bows, embroidery and that oh-so-crucial pair of nylons, but remains at the heart of it all a dog of no redeeming qualities and emphatically of no interest to anyone. As I was refreshing my memory of this book, I found myself reading the first page or so of a chapter, and when I realized that nothing of any interest or value was occurring (other than the pseudo-development of pseudo-characters), I’d skip the remainder. When you skip half the chapter ten times in a row, you reach the climax quickly, I assure you — and had the author left out the cement, this would have been a ridiculous short story whose shortcomings would be far more apparent.

I think one of the big problems here is that Frances Crane appears to have no experience with, or indeed any realistic idea of, the background or people about whom she is writing. Indeed she doesn’t seem sure of very much at all. Pat and Jean end up in Britain for vague and largely unexplained reasons — with wartime travel restrictions in place to the point where you can’t get a taxi from the station to the manor. Her upper-class Brits have mental attitudes and social mores more like small-town Americans; no one is concerned about things with which they should be concerned, and is preoccupied instead with who can beat whom at tennis (this is in 1943 when the war was at its height; it’s mentioned, but it’s less important than tennis victories). Yes, there are blackout curtains, but pulling them doesn’t have much to do with the war and more with establishing alibis or taking people away from their alibi witnesses. Pat Abbott is a cypher in a crisp Marine uniform. I very much doubt that Crane had ever seen a Renoir; I’m not even sure that she has ever seen people playing tennis. The servants’ only purpose in the book seems to be to die so that the upper-class people can be suspected of their murders, without actually having to sacrifice an interesting character. Crane appears to have little mental grasp of her large English manor house — the details of the rooms are blurry and indistinct, and it’s hard to tell the floor plan from the writing. If this had been a mapback edition, the artist would be inventing half the layout of the house.

Crane’s habitual fascination with women’s clothing and household decoration has lost its sparkle here. Even the pair of nylon stockings that starts the criminal plot rolling turns out, on the last page of the novel, to have been a cheat. I was expecting to read details of just how the boundaries of clothing coupons meant that women had to repurpose their clothing in specific ways in order to remain fashionable; instead of the minutely observed details in other books, here we just get a French blue suit with a cherry-red sweater worn by the hostess, but no idea about why this is interesting in any way. It doesn’t reveal her character, it doesn’t show her attitude to fashion, it’s just what she has on. In at least one other instance, Crane commits a cardinal writing sin.  She describes a character’s outfit and tells us why this means she is a certain type of person — but there is no link between the two. We’re not shown, we’re told, and not even very competently.

Ultimately, to sum this up — it’s just nonsense. The stage is set, nine or ten suspects pop up, talk for a chapter each, then are dismissed. There are three murder victims about whom no one seems really upset, a lot of hugger-mugger of detection that takes place mostly offstage, and some sketchy and vague descriptions of rooms and clothes. And the murderer is a crazy person with a crazy unbelievable motive. If you want to read an interesting Frances Crane novel, try The Golden Box; there’s some meat there to replace the cement.

25721346-5664312675_0abea1d2b1_o1Notes for the Collector:

A VG copy in VG jacket of the first edition of this novel will cost you approximately $75; I don’t regard this as a significant piece of the history of detective fiction, but I know that people collect all kinds of things, including Frances Crane firsts.  I don’t need one of these to the tune of $75, but your mileage may vary.

My own copy is, as I noted, a really lovely copy of Popular Library #344, with the Belarski cover. (The image at the top of the post is scavenged from the internet.)  My copy is close to Fine; tight, clean, unmarked, unrolled and with bright colour.  There’s a copy available from various internet booksellers for $45 that doesn’t sound as good as mine. Frankly, I think this is a much more collectible volume; people are collecting runs of Popular Library, Belarski covers, and volumes of the Abbotts. This is a key volume in a number of senses. I wouldn’t take $60 for mine and I expect it to appreciate. If you can find a beautiful copy of PL #344, that’s the one I would recommend collecting.

As promised, I have shown you the original Belarski cover art for G-Man Detective; note the differences, in that for the paperback edition a row of books has been omitted, and the flying dagger has been turned into a dart marked with an applegreen cat. I was unable to identify the specific date of publication of this magazine and it may actually be that the paperback art was repurposed into the magazine cover — I doubt it, but it’s possible. Anyway, if you find a copy of the magazine for sale, it’s likely to set you back about $35. Needless to say, no one in the book is described as wearing an off-the-shoulder peasant blouse and this may well show someone from a story in the magazine — or not.

Vintage Challenge Scorecard

The Pink Umbrella Murder, by Frances Crane

Title: The Pink Umbrella Murder

Author: Frances Crane

Publication Data:  Originally published 1943 as The Pink Umbrella, Lippincott.  This edition: first paper, Popular Library #218 (1949).  Cover art by Rudolph Belarski. No ISBN.  Reprinted in 2010 by Rue Morgue Press, ISBN 1601870523.

About this book:

Pat and Jean Abbott were the Thin-Man-esque protagonists of 26 mysteries published between 1941 and 1965; each volume has a colour in the title.  The series chronicles the meeting, courtship and married life of a San Francisco detective and his charming wife who seem to get entangled in murder mysteries.  The Abbotts are one of many husband-and-wife teams who proliferated in the 1940s — the husband doing the heavy detective work and the wife along for comedic relief, for the most part, although she usually manages to contribute a crucial piece of business along the way.  Other such teams include Mr. and Mrs. North, and Jeff and Haila Troy.

The Abbotts managed to garner at least as much success as the Norths in the public’s esteem; they were the subject of an American network radio series, Abbott Mysteries, from 1945 to 1947.  A second series, Adventures of the Abbotts, ran on NBC between 1954-1955.  Bizarrely, the scripts for the second series were lifted wholesale by the Mutual network and lightly rewritten — paraphrased — in order to supply material for their own series, It’s a Crime, Mr. Collins.  So one could certainly say that three radio series were based on Crane’s original work.  (You can access these radio shows at if you’re curious.)

The fifth volume in the series, The Pink Umbrella, is a fairly standard entry.  By this time, Pat and Jean have married and are honeymooning in New York.  This is the height of World War II and the novel opens with a reminder — Pat and Jean exclaim at the otherworldly look of New York during the “dim-out”, which apparently was one step away from England’s full-on black-out of the same period. The action takes place among a group of wealthy Americans who had been accustomed to living in Europe and are now expatriates in their own country; upper-class, sly, sophisticated, amorous, and heading to tragedy. The titular umbrella is actually a painting of children on a beach that pops in and out of view and whose disappearance seems to be related to the inevitable murder.  It will not exercise your mind very much to work out whodunit but I expect that most of the original readers of this volume preferred not to bother, merely allowing the plot to carry them through.  It’s more about bitchy wealthy women hatching plots against each other against a background of wealth and privilege.

Crane’s work, especially in this volume, is very reminiscent of Helen Reilly; a wealthy girl with a secret, stymied love affairs, a tiny clue that turns out to be crucial.  (Reilly did it better, mostly because she had more of a talent for creating creepy atmosphere.)  Somehow the Abbotts are accepted as Our Sort Of People and allowed the entree to question people and solve the crime.  But really what struck me about this, as most Abbott adventures, is the focus on clothing and domestic life.

This is from chapter 3:

“For clothes I had only the black suit I was wearing, a topcoat to match, a black cashmere sweater, some blouses, lingerie, and so on, two pairs of shoes, and only one hat, a skull cap of tiny canary-yellow feathers, perfectly adequate really, as anybody knows, but with the windows of upper Fifth Avenue and Madison simply seething with the most delicious spring hats I had got to the point where I simply had to have another hat.”

Exquisite detail — note the run-on sentence, and repetition of the word “simply”.  This is a woman speaking to other women.  The details of everyday life like the specific fabric of a curtain or the flat heels of a “good girl” are dwelt upon with loving attention whereas something so preposterous as the suggestion that the venom of the fer-de-lance is used to counter haemophilia — it may have been, but it must have been very much a treatment of the moment, since its use has not persisted — is casually tossed in and remains unexplained.  It seems reasonable that the reader was felt to be more interested in the precise length of skirts than the precise method of murder.

Ultimately the murder is demonstrated to have been committed by a wealthy person who has gone broke in the flight from Paris, having invested heavily in German munitions — traitor! — and will do anything to regain their fortune.  Again, I think this is designed to appeal to the middle-class woman who was the audience; “Harumph!” she says, closing the book with an air of satisfaction.  “I’d never do things like that if *I* had lots of money.”

One or two of the early Abbott novels stand out — The Golden Box (1942) addresses the situation of the American Negro, as they were then known, although not entirely to modern-day satisfaction, and the wartime volumes contain a wealth of fascinating detail about the everyday lives of Americans during wartime restrictions.  After the first radio series began in 1945, though, there is little of interest beyond the merely pedestrian.  They became proto-cozies.  Crane occasionally waves the spectre of espionage or Cold War hugger-mugger before us, mostly to give Mr. Abbott a chance to do something dangerous, but really what it all boils down to in the later novels is fashion, bitchy wealthy people, and a bloodless murder that takes place well off-stage.

Notes For the Collector:

The edition pictured above is, to my mind, the best.  Mine is in better shape than the illustration and I paid about $10 for it a number of years ago; I wouldn’t take $35 today, which is about the highest price on  It belongs to a peculiar sub-sub-genre of collectible paperbacks known as the “nipple cover”, for obvious reasons.  Apparently elderly men wish to recapture the salacious twinges of their youth and, like so many other such nostalgic excursions, they have driven up the price.  As you can imagine, this sort of artwork is also highly collectible by aficionados of camp.

Belarski, the cover artist, is very, very collectible and his popularity has only increased in the last decades as people grow to appreciate his style.  He also illustrated the cover of Popular Library #344, Crane’s The Applegreen Cat, in his trademark pulp-cover style of big boobs and incipient danger.  He is not the only proponent of the nipple cover, but he is the best artist who popularized it.

I’m happy to note that Rue Morgue Press seems to be bringing back a number of these novels in a relatively inexpensive format.  I have to confess, I’ve never managed to read more than a few of the second half of Crane’s oeuvre, since they are very difficult to find.  They are also not really very memorable, which may have something to do with it.  You will find the first dozen novels to be the most interesting and readable and with a reasonably active aftermarket.