Friday’s Forgotten Books: Edwin of the Iron Shoes by Marcia Muller

Marcia Muller released her 35th book about Sharon McCone in 2018. Sharon is one of the earliest contemporary female private investigators I could find. Of course there was Miss Silver who first appeared in the late 1920s and Honey West, who was a caricature of a PI in the 1960s. But as far as modern realistic attempts to portray a woman earning a living as a private detective, the first seems to have been Cordelia Gray, introduced by P.D. James in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman in 1972. Then came Sharon’s appearance five years later in 1977, followed by Delilah West in 1980 and Maggie Elliot in 1981. The iconic V.I. Warshawski and Kinsey Milhone both saw the light of day in 1982. Shortly afterwards the floodgates opened and readers had any number of women PIs to choose from, including taxi-driving Carlotta Carlyle and bartending Kat Colorado. Sadly enough, of the early arrivals only V.I. and Sharon are still around.

Sharon’s first case was Edwin of the Iron Shoes (David McKay, 1977). We learn right away that Sharon is the investigator for All Souls Cooperative, a legal plan for lower incomes in San Francisco, and her boss has called her to come to a small commercial strip that had been consulting with the cooperative over a series of vandalism events. This time one of the shop owners has been murdered. The police detective in charge does not want Sharon getting in his way so she uses the firm’s need to inventory the store for the owner’s estate as a reason for her to be on-site and to ask questions.

There are a number of things that don’t add up, such as how this particular shop appeared to be prosperous when the other stores on the street are barely getting by. A couple of break-ins while Sharon is in the store alone at night are frightening and tell her that there’s something valuable still there. Sharon doesn’t know enough about antiques to be able to tell what it is and she doesn’t trust the other dealers in the neighborhood enough to consult with them.

A story that is very much of its time and place. The partners in All Souls are the protestors of the 1960s grown up but still determined to make the world a better place. Computers had yet to commandeer the world. Apple meant the fruit in a lunch box and windows were holes in walls. Telephones stayed in one place, tethered by a cord. In many ways this book is historical fiction. Technology aside, the mystery is solidly plotted and solved. Along the way, key characters in this long-running series are introduced and their personalities begin to take shape, foreshadowing later stories. A good reminder of how this enduring series started. 

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Murders in Volume 2 by Elizabeth Daly

Elizabeth Daly (1879-1967) published her first mystery in 1940 and released 15 more in quick succession, the last one in 1951. Mystery Writers of America referred to her as “the grande dame of women mystery writers” when awarding her a “Special Edgar” in 1961.   The Golden Age of Detection Wiki states: “Daly works in the footsteps of Jane Austen, offering an extraordinarily clear picture of society in her time through the interactions of a few characters. In that tradition, if you knew a person’s family history, general type, and a few personal quirks, you could be said to know everything worth knowing about that person.” All 16 of her books feature Henry Gamadge, a bibliophile and expert on rare books and manuscripts.

In Murders in Volume 2 (Farrar & Rinehart, 1941) Henry Gamadge is invited to solve a mystery within an old, exclusive but now largely insolvent New York family. It seems in 1840 a governess to the family took a volume of Byron’s poems into the garden one afternoon and never returned. Both she and the book vanished forever. The family legend suggested the gazebo in the garden is haunted. Now the patriarch of the family, 80-year-old Imbrie Vauregard, known for his interest in the occult, is convinced that she has returned via the fourth dimension, looking just as she did a hundred years ago, and with the missing book as proof. The rest of the family is understandably skeptical and believes the so-called governess means to swindle the old gentleman out of what is supposed to be their inheritance. They hire Gamadge to identify the newcomer and the source of the book, which is the volume missing from a set of Byron in the Vauregard library.

Gamadge conducts a set of interviews and realizes he must have a photo of the upstart to properly identify her and arrives at the Vauregard mansion with a small camera to secretly photograph her. Instead he finds she has disappeared and Mr. Vauregard has been poisoned.

The family is full of recriminations for each other and Gamadge, although they are still relieved that their uncle did not have time to change his will. Gamadge finds he has to identify the killer to settle everyone else’s mind and to stop more bloodshed.

A smooth, evenly paced read. The milieu is old New York society, even though most of them have lost their money. Gamadge makes an interesting protagonist and the information about the old set of Byron is fascinating to bibliophiles. This is the story in which Gamadge meets his wife. Daly’s niece Eleanor Boylan wrote five mysteries featuring Henry’s widow Clara from 1989 to 1996. They don’t quite capture the feeling that these books have but they are also quite readable.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Number Seventeen by Louis Tracy

Louis Tracy (1863-1928) was an inventive and versatile English author. From the Golden Age Detection Wiki: “….journalist and author of science fiction, adventure, crime and some supernatural fiction. His best-known detectives are the Scotland Yard team of Superintendent Winter and Inspector Furneaux. Other books feature Reginald Brett, a barrister. Tracy also collaborated with fantasist MP Shiel on eight novels under the pseudonym Gordon Holmes.” See a partial bibliography here: http://gadetection.pbworks.com/w/page/7932357/Tracy%2C%20Louis. Fantastic Fiction states that he also used the pseudonym Robert Fraser, although I could not determine which books or stories were published under that name. https://www.fantasticfiction.com/t/louis-tracy/

Number Seventeen (Edward J. Clode, 1915) is one of the Superintendent Winter and Inspector Furneaux investigations, although the main character is a freelance writer named Francis Berrold Theydon. Theydon is leaving the theatre one rainy night when he finds himself near a young lady whom he had admired earlier. She is entering a vehicle while her father assures her he will be home soon after a quick stop at his club. Theydon’s taxi appears and he goes home, surprised upon his arrival at seeing the same gentleman in front of his building, nowhere near the club mentioned.

Theydon hears a visitor enter the flat across the landing from his shortly afterwards and assumes it is the same individual. When he is approached by Superintendent Winter and Inspector Furneaux about 24 hours later who tell him the reserved lady who lived in that flat has been murdered, he can only think of the dignified gentleman. Coincidence enters the picture yet again when the millionaire James Forbes whose interest in airflight has captured public attention and with whom Theydon has an interview as background for an article he is writing turns out to be the man he saw outside the theatre and then outside his apartment building.

Theydon is so smitten with the millionaire’s daughter Evelyn that he is reluctant to mention seeing her father outside the victim’s apartment at the critical time. Much of the story deals with his attempts to be honest with the police while protecting the Forbes family. This book is very much of its time with a romance that motivates the lead character and international intrigue that contributes to the plot. Suspicion of individuals born in the East is evident. I found the book more readable than I expected it to be. Tracy’s work appears to be well worth a closer inspection.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Lullaby of Murder by Dorothy Salisbury Davis

Dorothy Salisbury Davis (1916-2014) was known for her deeply human characters and the sensitivity and compassion with which she portrayed them in her suspense fiction. She was nominated for an Edgar Award six times, served as President of the Mystery Writers of America in 1956, and was named a Grand Master by the MWA in 1985. She was on the initial steering committee of Sisters in Crime when it was formed in 1986 to promote women crime fiction writers.

She wrote two series, one with Mrs. Norris, a Scots housekeeper in New York, and one with former actress Julie Hayes. Lieutenant Marks, a detective in the New York City police force, had two books to himself and he appeared in the Julie Hayes books. Her other 13 full-length novels are stand-alone mysteries. She also wrote dozens of short stories.

Sarah Weinman profiled Ms. Davis for Mystery Scene in 2014. See her article here: https://mysteryscenemag.com/blog-article/4589-dorothy-salisbury-davis. See the obituary that the New York Times ran here: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/08/arts/dorothy-salisbury-davis-suspense-novelist-dies-at-98.html.

Lullaby of Murder (Scribner, 1984) is the third Julie Hayes mystery. Julie has worked for Tony Alexander for a year and is celebrating the anniversary at Sardi’s. Alexander writes a popular gossip column in the New York Daily. Tony is notoriously difficult to get along with, so the fact of the anniversary is indeed something to celebrate. Her journalist husband Jeff is leaving for Paris that night to research neo-Fascism, so the celebration is additionally something of a farewell meal.

A day later Tony rejects her latest column in the most scathing and humiliating of terms. That night she returns to the office to do some work, but sees Tony’s name on the after-hours sign-in log at the security desk. She leaves rather than face him again so soon. Unfortunately, she was seen by other late workers and becomes a person of interest when Tony’s body is discovered in his office early the next day. Julie feels the urgent need to identify the real killer to remove herself from police attention, so she begins questioning Tony’s wife and daughter and others who knew him in the past.

This mystery seems to be simpler and more straightforward in the beginning than it turns out to be. It skews dark by the end. Davis was known for her capable female characters and Julie Hayes is no exception. There is definitely something about a woman who, upon being advised to get a job, rents an office and sets up as a tarot card reader. The background, as the title suggests, is about actors, the support actors and the people on the fringes of the acting world and the ways they struggle to maintain a place in that world. An intriguing read but perhaps a little more complicated than it needed to be.