Skeletons in the Closet, by Elizabeth Linington (1982)
Sergeant Ivor Maddox of the LAPD and his team have a number of crimes on their collective hands, as always. A couple of female skeletons turn up buried under a house that’s being demolished, and when they begin to investigate, they realize that there are perhaps dozens of skeletons that have turned up in similar circumstances over many years. A pair of robbers is robbing little shops for tiny amounts of money. A 13-year-old boy is found raped and murdered in an alley; another young girl is the victim of a hit-and-run. Someone is vandalizing churches. Someone jumps off a tall building, except it later turns out he was thrown. And someone has murdered a wealthy businessman under peculiar circumstances for a peculiar reason.
Maddox and his associates investigate the crimes as they come up, one overlapping the next. They solve a fair number of the smaller cases and all the large ones by the end of the book. And Maddox and his detective wife Sue make plans for Sue’s pregnancy.
Why is this book worth your time?
As I occasionally have cause to say, it’s not. This book is rubbish between boards, and you should avoid it entirely.
I’ve reviewed one of the works of Ms. Linington before; it’s from my “Books You Should Die Before You Read” series, found here, under her “Dell Shannon” pseudonym. I’ve declined to add this to “Die Before You Read” because it’s shooting fish in a barrel; same reasons as my last essay. Essentially all Linington’s books are the same. They’re from the “police procedural” school, but they are not in any sense realistic investigations of real crimes. They are nonsensical investigations of made-up crimes involving cardboard characters, and they without exception contain racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, theism, income-ism, and any other prejudice you can imagine. If you’re not an upper-middle-class or higher white person in a heterosexual marriage with a good career who believes in a Protestant god, then you’re pretty much a worthless piece of human garbage who gets what’s coming to you.
In this particular volume, the police decline to investigate a murder because it involves two illegal immigrants “from south of the border”, code for Hispanics. They advise a woman who has assaulted her “dyke”employee how to get away with it; she can be blackmailed, because she won’t want anyone to find out she’s a dyke. They pin a horrendous crime on a “hulking Negro” who ought to have been locked up or given the death penalty years ago, think the police, if it weren’t for the leniency of the parole board and the psychiatrists. A man calls his son a “pansy, a damn queer”, for wanting to become an artist instead of an accountant, and threatens to disinherit him. A man kills his younger boyfriend because he has consulted a psychiatrist to be somehow counselled out of his sexual preference, which apparently was possible in 1982. (Linington does not acknowledge the existence of gay liberation or the NAACP, it seems.) Churches are vandalized by a pair of teenagers, apparently because one’s father is an atheist and thinks it’s all bunk, and of course atheists cannot raise moral children. And in what appears to be a moment of comedy relief, a pair of small-time criminals keep committing petty crimes in the same neighbourhood because apparently they cannot read well enough to follow the highway signs and leave LA.
Poor people commit stupid crimes; stupid people commit stupid crimes. Almost everyone is stupid except middle-class white people and above, and even they commit the occasional crime. Although we think for most of the book that it’s an upper-class person who has committed a crime, it turns out to be one of their lower-class, lower-intelligence employees.
In fact, the only crime that the police have any real problem solving is one where a white middle-class man has killed a bunch of ugly middle-aged women, serially, after marrying them for their money. He hasn’t bothered to conceal his tracks very well; he merely moves every couple of years after burying two or three bodies under the house, and has remained employed with the same company. But since he is reasonably intelligent, white, and not hulking, drooling, or queer, the police can’t seem to get a handle on him. Oh, he’s insane! That’s the only thing that makes sense. Because there’s no reason for a white well-employed middle-class guy to kill people unless he’s insane, right?
I don’t know much about police procedure in Los Angeles in 1982 — but it’s clear that the author didn’t either. Regardless of their personal preferences, I rather doubt they can decline to investigate a bar fight/murder simply because the victim and killer are both Mexicans, or refuse to charge a woman who’s faked a burglary to cover an assault, just because the assault victim is gay. There’s not much police procedure, indeed, other than going out and talking to people. There are occasionally people who “dust for prints” but they never seem to come up with much useful information. In fact one crime is solved by a police officer walking by a car and making a guess that it has been in a hit-and-run, because it’s the right colour and model. The police never discuss their cases in groups, except over lunch. Oh, and women cops are there to do the paperwork and typing, bless their hearts. And deal with teenagers and break the news to widows. You know — girl stuff.
I’m at a loss as to why people kept reading these books. They’re not sufficiently well written to attract the upper-class white folks who apparently Miss Linington so reveres (she was, as her jacket flaps used to mention proudly, a member of the John Birch Society). And the middle-class folks who actually did read these books in Book Club editions — Linington was a mainstay of the Detective Book Club, since she was very prolific — must have occasionally woken up to the idea that the author didn’t think too much of them. Linington has no knack for describing people or places and the characters are almost all stereotypes. (There’s a “grieving father” in this book whose reactions are so emotionally flat that I toyed for a moment with the idea that the author was trying to hoodwink the reader. Nope — she just couldn’t write.)
What it might be, although I can’t say for sure, is that Linington had a knack for making white middle-class folks think that they were being protected by brave, stalwart police officers who solved almost every crime that came their way. And that the police cared a lot more for the difficulties of white middle-class folks than they did for people of colour, different sexual preferences, different ethnic origins, non-Christian religions, or those who had committed the sin of poverty.
I’d like to think, however, that these kept being published because — well, because they were fodder. They were fast, easy, disposable books written for people who weren’t paying much attention to what they were reading. Most of them didn’t even get paperback publication, which indicates to me that the primary purchasers of the first editions were libraries. Libraries, before the day when they found it acceptable to stock paperbacks, needed a constant source of inexpensive genre fiction. And the same with book clubs. For those reasons, I’d like to believe that Elizabeth Linington had a career despite the fact that her horrendous prejudices seeped through every page and volume that she produced, not because of it. I am discouraged to think that American readers may have actually enjoyed these books because of their prejudices. But at least her career is over and shows no signs of being revived. No reprints on the horizon, no television series, no chance that these will find any peculiar favour in the fickle minds of the general public. Thank goodness. The LAPD already has enough public relations problems.
My favourite edition
I’ve only ever seen the book club edition depicted at the head of this post, which was an inexpensive reprint of the Doubleday first edition. No paperbacks exist, to my knowledge, although I note there’s a British “large print” edition. I found this book so hateful and vulgar that I think my favourite edition would be one that’s blazing in a fireplace. I don’t usually recommend burning books, but a child might get hold of this and take it to heart.