Dance of Death, by Helen McCloy (1938)

Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about the titular novel and perhaps some others. I do not reveal whodunit, but I do discuss elements of plot and construction. If you haven’t already read this novel, it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

UnknownThis book was also published under the name Design for Dying.

I picked up my copy of this the other day — I read it a number of years ago and had forgotten the details in the intervening time. After refreshing my memory I thought it was a sufficiently enjoyable experience to share it with you.

What is this book about?

Katherine “Kitty” Jocelyn is one of the top debutantes of the New York season. She is slender, dark-haired, pale, and lovely, and in constant demand by advertising agencies to endorse everything from cigarettes to Sveltis reducing pills. Her coming-out party has been anticipated by her family for a long time, and every detail has been under the command of the well-known Mrs. Jowett, the premier social secretary for coming-out parties. Her family has devoted all its time and resources to advancing Kitty’s social career for years.

Unknown-1But the coming-out party does not go as planned, in many respects. Kitty herself is so ill on the night of her masquerade ball that the family persuades her cousin to impersonate her; and, as the reader rightly expects in a murder mystery, Kitty’s body is found soon after. The highly unusual features of her death include the facts that her skin has somehow turned a bright yellow, and her body is so hot that it has managed to maintain a higher-than-normal body temperature — despite its being found in a pile of snow.

Dr. Basil Willing is a psychiatrist who consults with the New York police department who becomes interested in the case. His interest is first piqued by the possibility that Kitty’s cousin Ann is being pressured by the family to continue impersonating the famous debutante; Ann appeals for Dr. Willing’s help to return to her everyday existence. Then there is the bizarre cause of death; there’s a great deal of scientific information packed in here about how and why she died and I won’t spoil it for you, but apparently McCloy came up with an interesting and unusual way of killing someone that is based in scientific reality.

Suspicion falls on members of her family, some of the servants, a couple of Kitty’s many suitors, and even a gossip columnist who seems over-involved in Kitty’s life. But it falls to Dr. Willing to pierce the many competing motives and find what turns out to be a murderer who acted for a very prosaic and understandable reason.

Why is this book worth your time?

13552719._UY475_SS475_I’ve elsewhere spoken of the “brownstone mystery”, a personal coinage describing a type of mystery that’s addressed primarily to a female reader; it’s meant to show the household arrangements of the wealthy class (clothes, social lives, furniture, homes, family relationships) while demonstrating to the reader that wealthy people are just as immoral and vicious as all the other social classes. The brownstone mystery flourished in the 1940s and authors like Frances Crane and Helen Reilly specialized in it. I’ll suggest that this is an early example, but to be frank Helen McCloy is a much better writer than, say, Frances Crane and brings her considerable skills to this, her first book. This is a brownstone mystery plus, and it’s the plus that makes it worth reading.

Unknown-2There’s a lot here to like. Basil Willing became the protagonist of a dozen mysteries in McCloy’s oeuvre, and while his personality is not as fleshed-out as it would later be, especially with the future addition of the beautiful Gisele to his life, he is an interesting and oddly compelling detective. The murder method is fascinating and apparently realistic. McCloy later became known for the occasional mystery involving a little-known chemical, such as the truth serum in 1941’s The Deadly Truth, and her treatment seems scientifically accurate with just enough detail to interest the reader without being tedious. The details of the Jocelyn household and its underlying difficulties are realistic and uncommon. And finally you will understand the motive for the murder without difficulty, but I rather doubt you’ll ever consider it during the course of the novel. The murder plot is clever and well-hidden but not impossible to work out if you’re paying very close attention.

The idea of one person being forced to impersonate another for economic reasons has been the focus of mysteries a number of times; the one that came to my mind in connection with this instance is Puzzle for Fiends by Patrick Quentin. Here the idea is not made much of and soon disappears, which is a little disappointing. Quentin did it better and you might move on to that volume after this, if you’re curious to see how it’s handled over the course of an entire novel.

I frequently pause to comment upon what we learn about the society of the time and place against which the novel is set, but in this case it’s better if I don’t — almost everything is connected with the murder and I’m likely to say too much. But there is quite a bit here about the nature of the “coming out” process, which is a phrase that in 1938 related to debutantes and not sexual preference, and particularly its economic implications. Fascinating stuff and you’ll enjoy it more if you come to it without hints.

A note on editions

31301106My favourite edition is, as usual, the Dell mapback edition — in this case #33, a very early number from about 1942. The cover art by Gerald Gregg features Dell’s trademark, the pioneering use of airbrush for the illustration showing a marionette being manipulated by a skeletal hand, and the typography is excellent; so is the map by Ruth Belew on the back cover, showing the Jocelyn house. I note that there’s an average copy available on eBay today for US$12 and I think this one would be the most collectible; that’s a good price, to my mind. Most of McCloy’s Basil Willing series until about 1950 are available in mapback editions.

The first edition is by William Morrow and I see that what appears to be a good copy without a jacket is available for about US$50. The person on eBay who wants US$650 for a near fine copy in a VG jacket is possibly delusional, since that’s perhaps three times what it should bring to my knowledge, but who am I to say? There’s also a Gollancz omnibus edition of McCloy’s 1st, 3rd, and 4th Basil Willing novels that includes the interesting The Deadly Truth, mentioned above, and might be the best bargain … except for the recent uniform e-books edition from The Murder Room.





The Greek Coffin Mystery, by Ellery Queen (1932)

The Greek Coffin Mystery, by Ellery Queen (1932)


Ellery Queen is a fictional detective in the books by Ellery Queen … who is  a fictional writer.  The fictional writer whose name is on a set of novels from 1929 to 1971 was actually two people, cousins generally known as Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, whose joint Wikipedia entry is found here. As Wikipedia makes clear here, quite a few books ascribed to Ellery Queen were actually written by other authors; this one, however, is certainly the product of Dannay and Lee. Dannay also managed the affairs of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (the original version of this post erroneously suggested that it was Dannay and Lee in tandem), and the Ellery Queen name appears on the cover of many books of anthologized short stories reprinted from the magazine. Complicated, isn’t it? There’s also an old-time radio program, a series of vintage movies, a television series, comic books, a game or two, and even reference books about the character and the authors.

2633Publication Data:

This volume is the fourth Ellery Queen novel to be published by the cousins. The first nine books in the series each have a number of common features; there is a nationality in the title, here “Greek”; there is an introduction written by someone known only as “J.J. McC.”, now not considered canonical, and the famous “Challenge to the Reader”.  This challenge stops the action of the book and speaks directly to the reader, asserting that every piece of information necessary to solve the mystery is now in the reader’s hands. This is, in fact, the case; this volume is a strict-form puzzle mystery as I have elsewhere defined this term. One interesting conceit of this particular book is that each chapter has a single-word title; examination of the table of contents reveals that the initial letters of the chapter titles, considered acrostically, spell out “The Greek Coffin Mystery By Ellery Queen”.

The book was first published in 1932 by Frederick A. Stokes in the U.S. and a little later by Gollancz in the UK.  The first paperback edition is Pocket #179, seen at the head of this post. Many paperback editions exist; this book has only sporadically been out of print since its publication. It is now available in multiple e-book formats.

The Greek Coffin Mystery, 1960 - illus James Meese-1Although I have a VG copy of the first paper edition shown above, I actually used an e-book from an unknown source as my reference copy for this review (I found it in my files and have no idea where it came from, possibly as part of a gift of a bundle of e-books from a colleague); pagination is impossible to guarantee and I have chosen to not give page citations.

About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read may discuss in explicit terms the events of this murder mystery in GREAT detail. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply.

IF YOU HAVE NOT READ THIS BOOK, STOP HERE AND GO READ IT BEFORE YOU RETURN. YOU WILL THANK ME. I can’t be any clearer — your first reading of this book should be unsullied by any knowledge of its contents, and the less you know in advance, the happier you will be. 

index-3_1The story begins with the death of wealthy Greek-American art dealer and connoisseur Gregor Khalkis; for once in a murder mystery, there’s nothing suspicious about the death. He’s been suffering from heart troubles for years that have left him blind and under the full-time care of a physician. It’s the disappearance of Khalkis’s will that is baffling everyone; five minutes before the funeral it was there, after the funeral it’s vanished. The house is searched, to no avail, and Mr. Woodruff, the family lawyer, calls in District Attorney Pepper. More searching, and no results. No secret passages or hidden compartments in the furniture or walls; no evidence that it was destroyed. Apparently the disappearance of the will is connected with its provisions, and someone’s desire to return to an earlier testamentary disposition of the Khalkis estate … but no one can figure out what happened. Finally Pepper calls in Ellery Queen, who deduces that the only possible location is inside the only object that’s left the house unsearched — Mr. Khalkis’s coffin. He convinces the authorities of the validity of his logic and they obtain permission to dig up the coffin. Unfortunately the coffin doesn’t contain the will. What it does contain is the strangled body of an ex-convict, a convicted forger named Grimshaw, jammed in on top of the late Mr. Khalkis. 

We soon meet the household and learn that Grimshaw had been admitted to a private interview with Khalkis shortly before their deaths. Khalkis has household staff (including the beautiful British secretary, Miss Brett, who might be romantically involved with Khalkis’s handsome young nephew Alan), relatives (including his mentally handicapped cousin Demmy, who acts as a kind of valet for the blind Mr. Khalkis) and the various employees of his art gallery and other business operations.

Ellery directs the activities of his father, Inspector Queen of the New York Police, with the assistance of DA Pepper, and a large group of officers immediately begin to learn everyone’s every movement. As is common in such fictional situations, it soon becomes apparent that most of the people in Khalkis’s life had recent acrimonious interactions with him, and many of them may well have had interactions with the deceased forger. Promptly upon the start of investigations, multi-millionaire Wall Street baron James Knox, friend of both the President and the late Mr. Khalkis, insists upon being briefed upon progress; Ellery announces that the case is solved. <gasp>

index-5_1A few chapters previously, the people around Ellery were baffled by his insistence on performing a number of experiments with the contents of a tea-urn in Khalkis’s office, and the surrounding used teacups, lemon, et cetera. He boils water, pours it out, measures amounts — no one understands what’s going on, and they think he’s losing his grip. As well, Ellery seems curiously interested in Mr. Khalkis’s neckties; he’d had some new ones delivered for the use of his handicapped cousin in executing his valeting duties. Ellery doesn’t explain until this point, when he reveals that, first of all, the details surrounding the neckties reveal that Mr. Khalkis has spontaneously regained his vision, and second, that two mysterious people who visited Khalkis in his study the night before his death were not actually two people, and that Khalkis had gone through an incredible rigamarole to make it seem as though two other people had been there. This idea, Ellery reveals, is the result of his analysis of tea-cups and tea water. And therefore — Khalkis murdered Grimshaw.

Immediately upon this revelation — about halfway through the book — two things happen. One is that Miss Brett reveals that, oopsie, she forgot to mention that the used teacups were differently arranged than when they were found by Ellery, and Knox reveals that there was indeed a third man in that meeting with Khalkis and Grimshaw.  How does he know?  Knox was the third man.

At this halfway point in the novel, Ellery’s house of logical cards collapses and he sinks into depression; this event actually affects the remainder of his career and all subsequent books that feature him. He determines that because he has revealed the results of his analysis and been disproven, he will never again speak about his investigations until he is absolutely, completely certain of the identity of the murderer (rather like Saul’s conversion on the road to Tarsus). Although it’s not referred to specifically in later volumes, his detective career is forever changed by this event; it also changes the way in which his work is presented. When you think about it, it’s not sensible for a detective to hide the progress of his investigations from the police; this situation was apparently set up by the authors to create a structure for future novels that would delay the solution until the end of the book.

Knox now starts the second half of the plot in motion.  He had been dickering with Khalkis for the right to purchase a Da Vinci painting that had previously been thought to have been destroyed. But Grimshaw had become involved by going to Knox, announcing that he had stolen the Da Vinci some years ago for Khalkis, and Khalkis had apparently been unable to pay him for his labours. Finally Khalkis had agreed to make out his will in favour of Grimshaw and in the interim gave him a promissory note. Khalkis, Grimshaw and Knox had all met and drunk tea on that fateful evening, and then some unknown person had tampered with the physical evidence in order to lead Ellery away from the truth. Ellery soon determines that that unknown person must logically have been in partnership with Grimshaw.

Knox refuses to hand over the Da Vinci and announces that he’ll deny having it in his possession — and that it’s a copy anyway. Ellery then realizes that his deduction of Khalkis having recovered his sight was also incorrect; instead, handicapped Demmy is revealed to be colour-blind. Ellery grimly acknowledges his mistakes and gets back to work on solving the case.

Events now progress more rapidly.  The investigation receives an anonymous tip that the manager of Khalkis’s art gallery, Gilbert Sloane, is actually Grimshaw’s brother. The police discover that an empty house in Khalkis’s neighbourhood was the temporary resting place of Grimshaw’s corpse (until the murderer had the bright idea of disposing of it in the coffin) and they discover a shred of the burned will in a furnace in the empty house, confirming that the missing will indeed left the huge Khalkis estate to Grimshaw. This means that Sloane will actually inherit through his brother; they find a key to the empty house concealed in the Sloane home. Everyone rushes to the Khalkis Gallery to arrest Sloane — and he’s been shot. Superficially it looks like suicide, but Ellery makes a deduction that proves it to be murder. And everything grinds to a halt, because Ellery cannot find a thread of the tapestry upon which to pull in order to make progress with the case.

index-221_1Miss Brent reveals herself to have been an agent of the British Museum, employed to track down the Da Vinci; she’s hired by Knox to help him with his executor’s duties on the Khalkis estate. And the British Museum is about to pull the lid off the case unless Ellery solves it in a hurry.  Soon, the missing promissory note shows up — half of it is used as the paper upon which a blackmail note is typed. The actual typing of this note is of interest; there’s a tiny typographical error that is shown to the reader but not further explained.

At about this point, the above-mentioned “Challenge to the Reader” breaks the flow of the action; you now have in your possession enough information to solve the mystery and identify Grimshaw’s partner and the murderer.  I will from this point on be reticent about what happens; I haven’t yet told you anything that would make any difference to your ability to solve the murder, since if you read the book everything will be available to you.  But henceforth, I will cut back drastically on my comments for fear of spoiling things for you.

It is safe to say, though, that there is a common theme in nearly all Ellery Queen stories that is repeated here; the false solution, then the true. At this point, Ellery makes an announcement about who is guilty of precisely what; this leads to a series of events that brings us to the final solution. Ellery has set a trap for the real killer, and I wager that you will be very, very surprised by the answer, which is revealed dramatically with Ellery being shot in the shoulder and the murderer dying in a hail of gunfire at the end of Chapter 33. Chapter 34 consists of Ellery recuperating from his wound and explaining everything, in great detail, to an assembly of suspects and investigators.

04b_GreekWhy is this book worth your time?

The year of publication of this book is 1932.  In 1932, Agatha Christie had published a mere dozen novels, but including one of the most difficult mysteries ever written (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). Ngaio Marsh was two years away from her first book; Margery Allingham was at the beginning of her career; John Dickson Carr had not yet published a Gideon Fell or a Henry Merrivale novel; Anthony Berkeley had published a number of excellent books including 1929’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case — and the “Golden Age” mystery was in its early stages. It was not completely newborn; perhaps adolescent; still finding its way, outlining the ideas that define the form, the boundaries of the genre, its passions, its likes and dislikes, its enthusiasms and hatreds. S.S. Van Dine and Ronald Knox had both published sets of rules as to what detective stories should and should not be; clever writers like “Ellery Queen” were casting off the old strictures and extending the boundaries of the form.

This particular story has to be one of the most difficult strict-form puzzle mysteries ever written and, frankly, they don’t make ’em like this any more. This book has more sheer logic and detection in it by the halfway point than in the entire oeuvre of your average cozy author; and by the end of the novel, more difficult chains of logic than the entire oeuvre of ten cozy writers. This book was written at a time when readers did not cavil at being faced with an extremely difficult puzzle and it has, over the years, maintained its place as one of the finest examples of such a puzzle. I haven’t worked out the ramifications of this in great detail, but I’ll suggest that this is one of Queen’s top two books — the other being The Chinese Orange Mystery — and one of the top 25 puzzle mysteries ever written. Just don’t make me name the other 23, please!

When I’m analyzing a puzzle mystery, there’s a process I go through that is crucial to determining its level of quality. Simply put, once I know whodunnit, I go through the novel again from the murderer’s point of view and see if everything makes sense. And I think you would be surprised at how often things just do not make sense when I do that. For instance, I recently looked at a poorly-written mystery by Frances Crane, The Applegreen Cat. (My analysis is here.) Among other problems, the plot consisted of a mystery that was difficult from the point of view of the reader — but ridiculous from the point of view of the murderer, who apparently deliberately waited until the country house was filled with house guests before embarking upon a killing spree among the servants. Another example is an early novel of Harlan Coben’s whose name slips my mind along with most of the details. Three-quarters of the way through the book, the protagonist discovers that the murderer has a cabin  in the woods filled with evidence, and this provides everything needed to bring the book to a close. The problem is, as I realized even before reaching the end of the novel, no murderer in his right mind would have left all that tasty evidence in place, sitting in an empty cabin for anyone who happened by. It’s rather like one of those plots where the murderer has the detective at his mercy, but stops to deliver a complete detailed confession before disposing of his nemesis. It helps out the book a lot, but lowers the murderer’s IQ by 50 points in an instant.

If you go through the process of analyzing things from the murderer’s point of view, everything in this book continues to make perfect sense. The murderer’s motives are clear; they make sense and continue to make sense once you know what they are. The only thing that trips up the killer is a trap set by the detectives that is also based on something that the murderer needs to see happen. The tiny clues left by the murderer are tiny accidents; they aren’t taunts left by the killer, or foolish oversights, but something small and careless like closing a door when it shouldn’t have been closed, or not predicting that a character may confess something that is not in his best interests in order to cooperate with the police. And there are not many puzzle mysteries about which this can be said. Nothing depends on coincidence, chance, acts of God or ridiculous motivation. Just about the only logical flaw in the entire novel is the size of the fragment of the will that is found in the furnace of the empty house, and the fact that it contains precisely the information that is needed to move forward; this is a bit of a stretch, but, you know, it could happen. All the clues you need are fairly there, and the Challenge to the Reader is accurate.

The other part of this book that is beautifully crafted is the false trail that the reader is meant to follow. I read this book as a teenager and I remember the sense of exultation with which I came to the conclusion that the authors wished me to reach; I’d spotted the tiny clues, I’d noticed the snippets of dialogue, and I’d realized what they meant. I felt smart. By golly, this mystery business wasn’t so hard after all, I thought. And then I realized that I’d been well and truly fooled, and that was what the authors had meant to happen. Up until that point, I’d merely failed to solve the mystery, or I’d guessed sort of randomly at a possible solution. This time I’d tried to solve the mystery, and I’d been fooled. And it may well be this book that started me on a lifetime of challenging my wits against those of the author.

In short — this is one of the finest strict-form puzzle mysteries that you will ever have the pleasure of failing to solve. In the past, for the benefit of a friend who hasn’t yet had the pleasure of encountering this mystery, I’ve taken a cheap paperback and torn it in half at the point at which the Challenge to the Reader appears, in order to give my friend the chance to give this mystery the attention it deserves without the opportunity to spoil it by peeking. There are not many mysteries worth doing that with. If you enjoy the experience, and you see a cheap paperback copy go by, pay it forward for a friend.

Notes for the Collector:

As of this writing, AbeBooks has on offer a Good copy of the first edition, inscribed by Frederick Dannay to his sister-in-law, for $500, and two unsigned copies of the first for $236 and $250. The second edition will set you back $175, and a copy of the first UK from Gollancz is listed for about $60. I am aware of an interesting edition from International Readers League in 1933, with a street map and floor plan of the Khalkis house (like the ones reproduced here, which are also in the first paper edition), and Abe has a copy for $75.

Some crazy person on ViaLibri wants $500 for the Bestseller Mystery/Mercury edition of 1941, and I can only think that it has about $490 in cash tucked between the pages. Amereon reprinted this title in 2001 and I can’t think why this particular book is bringing prices in the $75 range for an undistinguished hardcover with no jacket.

In paper, the 1942 first paper edition from Pocket is quite collectible because it’s a low-numbered book in that pioneering series, collected by many, even though, as you can see from the illustration at the top of this post, the cover art is downright unattractive — muddy, unexciting and dull. (When you look at the gaudy but exciting cover of The French Powder Mystery from the same company at about the same time, you wonder if the publishers were trying to make the Greek Coffin look boring!) Mine is a relatively nice copy and what appears to be a similar one on Abe is listed for $20; I’ve seen many copies of this book and many of them appear to have vertical creases in the cover, rolling, etc. There is a Penguin greenback available, of which there are many collectors, and many other editions.

1808330There’s a Cardinal edition that has a great piece of “girlie leg art” on the cover and, for once, it actually depicts a scene from the book. One quirky favourite edition of mine has always been a uniform set of Signet paperbacks from the early 70s with a tightly-kerned Helvetica title and cover art of a pretty model posed within a box, holding an oversized prop that has something to do with the plot.  Possibly this has something to do with the fact that in many cases this was the first edition that passed through my hands; at this remove, they look quite camp. Your mileage may vary. The point is that, depending on what your budget and collector’s instincts might be, there’s something for you. My own recommendation would be the signed first, which is quite scarce with any signature, and for smaller budgets the best copy you can afford of the Pocket edition, unless you like “girlie leg art” in which case the Cardinal edition may suit you best.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1932 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; third under “D”, “Read a book already read by another challenger.” This volume was reviewed on February 17, 2014 at a blog called “Classic Mysteries”; the review is found here. For a chart outlining my progress, see below.

Vintage Golden Card 001

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.


Nathan Aldyne

From time to time I post about a particular writer, more or less as something crosses my path. Last weekend I was at a street fair in my city’s “gaybourhood” and came across some used books for sale from the gay community centre’s library. I noticed three by an author whom I’d enjoyed in the past and picked them up.  For a buck a paperback, why not?

There were only four books in the Valentine and Clarisse series of mysteries. They are, probably in the wrong chronological order, Vermilion, Slate, Canary and Cobalt, and all four were published in the early 1980s. They are “gay mysteries”; Valentine is a handsome young gay man and Clarisse is his best girlfriend, and together they solve mysteries concerning gay people against a background of gay establishments, trophes, etc.  Their principal virtue is that they are funny. Well, okay, they’re not fall down laughing tears streaming from the eyes wet yourself funny, but they are lighthearted and zany, if I can use that fine old word. They remind me of  the Thin Man movies (not the book, particularly) about Nick and Nora Charles, originated by Dashiell Hammett, and the subsequent “lighthearted mystery comedy about zany married couple” sub-genre of mysteries exemplified by relatively little-known writers like Kelley Roos (Jeff and Haila Troy), Frances Crane (the Abbotts) and the Lockridges (Mr. and Mrs. North) and a bunch of movies and radio programs.

As mysteries per se, the books are — meh. The back cover of a paperback edition of one of the volumes features a review by “Newgate Callendar” from the New York Times.  I’m not sure why the publishers felt they should include all of this review, since it was moderately unfavourable. Nevertheless I agree with “Callendar” that one or two of the actions in the books are motivated by nothing more than a desire to keep things moving in an amusing way and not based on logic or sense.  Indeed, it is hard to imagine any logical motive for some of the things that happen, and some of the motivations that characters evince are — hard to understand and hard to believe.  But they are generally funny. The protagonists are charming, the backgrounds are authentic, the characterizations are amusing, the plots are witty, if illogical.

The thing about these mysteries that interested me in the 30-year interval since their publication is that they are, however inadvertently, a portrait of American gay society immediately before AIDS.  In what I believe is the last of the four, it is mentioned that a social event is being held as a charity fund-raiser for an AIDS charity.  As far as I know, that’s the only mention of AIDS, which actually killed both the gay men who were writing as “Nathan Aldyne” (and probably why the series stopped, although one died in ’87 and the other in the late 90s). I lived through that period as an actively gay man, and it is sometimes difficult to explain to people of a younger generation that, yes, it was possible to have sex as often and as randomly as we did. That bars and steambaths and the like were cornucopias of sexuality, freely available and generously given.  (At one point in one novel, a young man has sex with someone whom he finds relatively unattractive because he feels it is expected of him, as kind of an “end to the evening” thing.) Gay men looked and acted in the ways that are shown in these novels, and were motivated by the things by which they are shown to be motivated. It’s not an enormously important social document, but to me it was an interesting one.

The first editions are ferociously expensive; even the 1980s paperbacks are pricey.  But a gay press republished the books in trade editions more recently, and you will find these relatively easy to acquire, and inexpensively so. If you are interested in the social fabric of gay society immediately before it was ruined by AIDS, these will be a worthwhile read.