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 archive.org 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 abebooks.com. 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.