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.

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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.

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Okay, what I’m NOT reading

I’m a natural-born speed reader and, from about ages 16 to 45, read about a book a day.  At least one book a day, more if I had them around.  This included re-reading old ones.  It’s kind of baffling these days to me to realize that I just don’t read as much as I used to.  This is for a number of reasons — partly that I can’t afford to spend as much on books as once I did, partly that I experience a lot of books on audio these days, partly that I’m writing one and don’t want to be influenced.

But I can say that there are a couple of writers whom I used to love and now — well, as I put it the other day, they’ve changed from unputdownable to unpickuppable.  I remember the day when I used to buy Reginald Hill in hardcover, just because I couldn’t wait for the paperback to come out.  Well, I’ve had his last-but-one in paperback sitting on the to-be-read shelf with a bookmark at about page 50, and I have finally stopped believing that I am ever going back to it.  It’s going in a box for storage.

The other writer I used to love is Elizabeth George.  I was fortunate to meet her a couple of times, when she came and signed at my store — apparently we sold a disproportionate number of books of hers out of sheer enthusiasm and she was sent to us more often as a result.  I also took a brief course with her on “How to write a mystery”, which doesn’t seem to have gotten me anywhere because all I remember is that I was seated next to Kareen Zebroff — if you are a Canadian, you will remember Yoga with Kareen on television from the 70s or 80s.  Ms. Zebroff was probably a good yoga instructor (her program was at this point off the air) but as a fellow course-taker she was annoying as hell, because it was all about her.  I wanted to hear Elizabeth George talk about mysteries, thanks very much, not a fellow student monopolizing the conversation with talk about how interesting this all is to a yoga instructor.  I note that I have never heard of Ms. Zebroff writing anything since and probably not even signing autographs. And I seem to have forgotten everything I learned from Elizabeth George, but that’s okay, she leads by example. If I hadn’t read A Great Deliverance, I wouldn’t have been able to write my own current novel in progress.

Anyway — I thought her first book, A Great Deliverance, was truly fine, one of the best mysteries of its decade.  She proved she knows how to show character and let you figure it out, rather than telling you “If A, therefore B,” which “leading by the nose” I so dislike in lesser authors. I loved most of her subsequent three or four novels (okay, I didn’t like #2 and asked her once if she had had it in her trunk before selling #1, whereupon she justifiably froze me with a glance). These days, I cannot deal with all that angst and frustration and the layer upon layer of minuscule detail in her work that I gather people do so love, that incredible accretion of observations that conceal the clues. That and my current idea that Barbara Havers needs to be put out of her misery as being the unhappiest person in detective fiction.  I started to read the last two or three, got about ten pages in and said “Fuck it.” As my friends know, if something doesn’t explode every once in a while, I get bored.

Parenthetically — I was present when a fan asked her if Barbara Havers was ever going to find love and/or happiness. She said, approximately, “Not if I can help it.” Good answer!

There are other authors whom I never have been able to stand reading, notably Janet Evanovich, Joan Hess and the truly unspeakably awful “Cat Who” mysteries.  I’m not a big cosy guy.  But I am kind of at a loss to understand how I can just “go off” an author whom I used to love.  And make no mistake, George and Hill are very, very talented writers.  I suppose I’ve just lost my taste for them. Perhaps my taste has worsened over the years, become more flattened and bland from years of pap on television.

Perhaps your experience is better than mine.  I know I’m likely to hear from Elizabeth George fans (Cat Who fans, save your breath) — and, Susan, if you’re reading this, I still love you as a person, it’s just I’m not buying your books any more. I loved the course, honest. And I still remember our conversation while driving through the streets of Vancouver about petals dropping from the flowering cherry trees and how the presence or absence of them on a car’s windshield might be a clue in a mystery. Someday, I’m sure it will be.