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.
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.
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.
The American Gun Mystery by Ellery Queen (Frederick A. Stokes, 1933) is the sixth mystery written by cousins Manfred Bennington Lee and Frederic Dannay. The series began in 1929 with The Roman Hat Mystery and ended in 1971 with A Fine and Private Place. A collection of short stories was released posthumously in 1999.
Buck Horne was a star of the silent Western movies for years but eventually the casting calls stopped. His foster daughter had learned all of his shooting, roping, and riding skills and became a cinema star in his place. Buck yearned for the spotlight again and, in a bid for a comeback, enlisted the assistance of his old friend Wild Bill Grant, a former U.S. Marshal, who cast him as a star in his traveling rodeo. The massive indoor sports arena in New York was rented for a week’s worth of shows, and Grant moved his performers, their horses and caretakers, and all of the supporting staff and gear needed across the country to New York.
Ellery Queen and his father Inspector Queen were given tickets to the opening night and were on the spot when Buck falls off his horse during an early gallop around the stadium floor in front of a crowd of some 20,000 people. A bullet hole is discovered in the body and Inspector Queen takes over what is obviously a homicide scene. Inspector Queen focuses on the search for the murder weapon, while Ellery Queen focuses on the people closest to the dead man.
I thought this was a clever idea for a story setting. The juxtaposition of the Old West and that quintessential city of cities New York is incongruous, as no doubt it was meant to be. The idea of cowpunchers on the loose in the city that never sleeps evokes visions that are hard to forget. The attempt to reproduce Western dialect was strained but I got the point.
The mystery itself was convoluted and the solution was a surprise. Despite Ellery Queen’s statement midway through that he knew who had committed the murder, I didn’t feel as if all the clues were present from which to reach the final answer. Inspector Queen was remarkably patient with his son when he made these pronouncements. The writing was florid and could have been tightened up to good effect. Probably not the best choice for a first Queen read. Still, an entertaining story with some original characters.
Margaret Neilson Armstrong (1867–1944) was a well-known book cover designer with some 270 books to her credit, working for A.C. McClurg, Scribner’s, and other publishers. Her covers generally had a plant theme and were in the Art Noveau style. Authors for whom she designed include Frances Hodgson Burnett, Charles Dickens, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Henry van Dyke. When dust jackets rose in prominence, she began writing her own books. From 1911 to 1914, she traveled throughout the Western United States and Canada, discovering several species of flowers as yet unidentified. The results of her research were compiled in her Field Book of Western Wild Flowers (1915), which is considered the first comprehensive guide on the subject.
After that, she wrote three mysteries, the first of which, Murder in Stained Glass (Random House, 1939), was no doubt informed by her father’s and sister’s extensive work in stained glass. In her sole appearance Miss Trumbull of New York visits a school friend in a small New England town. Expecting a tedious stay, she is pleasantly surprised to find a lively young cousin staying with her friend and that the cousin has an attractive young neighbor. The neighbor’s father is Frederick Ullathorne, a noted stained glass artist, known for his temper as much as his talent. The privacy-loving Ullathorne has just moved his studio to the small town to get away from the noise of New York City.
Mr. Ullathorne hasn’t been in the area long but his irritability and unpleasantness has managed to upset many of the locals. When he is murdered in a particularly gruesome way, there are any number of suspects for the authorities to consider. Miss Trumbull is not impressed with the detective leading the investigation so she undertakes her own.
This is a traditional mystery, much in the style of Agatha Christie. Miss Trumbull tends to ask a number of questions, heedless of the danger she is putting herself into. A friend warns her against getting involved, but in true cozy heroine style, she persists until she finds herself in a confrontation with the murderer. A fine comfortable read.
Cover from the 2015 reissue by Lost Crime Classics.
Helen Reilly (1891-1962) wrote nearly 40 mysteries between 1930 and 1962. Her primary series character was Inspector Christopher McKee of the fictional Manhattan Homicide Squad. She is credited with writing some of the earliest known police procedurals, using forensics and scientific investigation to solve the mystery. Michael E. Grost (http://mikegrost.com/classics.htm) has an essay on her use of scientific detection principles in her books on the Golden Age of Detection Wiki: http://gadetection.pbworks.com/w/page/7931406/Reilly%2C%20Helen
She did keep herself informed in the realm of forensics research. In The Dead Can Tell (Random House, 1940) she makes use of the new method of rebuilding the face of homicide victims based on the skull bone structure when they cannot be identified any other way.
In this story, the ninth appearance of McKee, Steven Hazard and Cristie Lansing accidentally meet after ending their relationship years earlier. They are both reminded of what they gave up, especially Steven, who married on the rebound, only to regret it bitterly. He takes a promotion within his company that will take him out of the country and plans to take Cristie with him, after initiating divorce proceedings and handing over virtually all of his assets to his wife Sara. To his great surprise, Sara will not grant him the divorce he wants. Within 24 hours, her car is seen to roll off the street into the river. When the car is recovered within hours, there was no one in it. When her body is recovered weeks later, the medical examiner’s findings are death by accident.
A few weeks after the funeral, Inspector McKee receives an anonymous letter that says Sara Hazard was murdered. While he has no real evidence that the death was anything but accidental, he begins investigating. He learns that Sara Hazard’s maid has disappeared with some of Sara’s jewelry. He finds that Sara was deeply in debt and indulged in blackmail to keep herself afloat. It took no time to discover that her husband wanted to end their marriage. With the list of her enemies growing almost daily, Inspector McKee finds it easier and easier to believe the death was deliberately contrived.
While it’s clear that Reilly did indeed incorporate police procedures into the plot of her book, she wasn’t consistent with their application. For instance, she did not observe the preservation of the chain of evidence as it related to one of the guns in the case. It probably wasn’t as important then as it is now.
The general style of the writing and many of the characters in this book remind me of the Lockridges’ work. Perhaps also because it is set in New York, where most of their books were set. I intend to locate a few more in this series for my TBR stack. Recommended especially for anyone interested in the history of police procedurals.
William Hulbert Footner (1879-1944) was born in Hamilton, Canada, and moved to New York before he was 20 years old. Eventually he settled his family in Calvert County, Maryland. He wrote books on travel and developed mysteries around two series detectives: one is Amos Lee Mappin, a successful mystery writer who solved crimes in and around New York’s social scene, the other is Madame Rosika Storey, a private investigator in New York City, whose exploits were described by her assistant. Madame Storey is a 1920s professional who chooses career over the traditional role for women, in itself interesting. Footner’s Rosika Storey cases appeared in Argosy All-Story Weekly every year from 1922 through 1935. Some were collected into book-length volumes and reissued as the following titles:
The Under Dogs,
New York, London, 1925
Madame Storey, New
York, London, 1926
Hand, New York
The Doctor Who
Held Hands, 1929
Easy to Kill,
Perfect Murder, 1933
of Madame Storey, London, Toronto, and New York, 1936. (Source: Wikipedia)
The first book featuring Madame Storey was published by Doran
in 1926 and is a collection of four short stories:
“The Ashcomb Poor Case”
“The Scrap of Lace”
“The Smoke Bandit”
“In the Round Room”
The first story, the longest of the four, describes how Madame Storey met her assistant and then ran circles around the local district attorney in the successful identification of the culprit who murdered Ashcomb Poor, a wealthy man whose womanizing proved to be his undoing.
are more character focused than plot driven. They are a pleasant read,
reflecting as they do the Roaring Twenties during which they were written,
although not particularly remarkable in investigative techniques or plot
devices. They are worth looking into by those interested in Golden Age mysteries.
Frances Kirkwood Crane (1896-1981) wrote 26 mysteries
between 1941 and 1965 with private investigator Pat Abbott and his wife Jean in
the leading crime-solving role. The Abbotts were based in San Francisco but
travelled constantly so the stories are set in a range of locales. All of the books
have a color in the title, except for The Polkadot Murder, which, to be
strictly accurate, is a pattern, not a color.
The Cinnamon Murder
(Random House, 1946) is the eighth in the series, and the Abbotts are
vacationing in New York City. After 10 days they are ready to go home. They
attend one last cocktail party where they become enmeshed in the problems of
Brenda Davison. They meet Brenda’s brother-in-law and her sister-in-law and
learn that Brenda’s husband, their brother, died in an aircraft accident a few
years previously. They also learn that the surviving Davisons’ father left a
sizeable estate to his grandchildren, skipping a generation and making Brenda’s
3-year-old daughter immensely wealthy. Neither of the Davisons like Brenda but
they like the money she controls as her daughter’s guardian, thereby setting up
significant tension in the family. The child was quite ill earlier in the year,
and Brenda believes that someone tried to poison her.
Between worry about her child and being convinced
the Davisons are trying to make her look like an unfit mother, Brenda is upset
and hysterical in almost every conversation she has with the Abbotts. Pat is
intrigued enough to postpone their departure from New York to look into the
situation. They seem to never sleep and, during one of their early morning
investigative excursions, find the body of a woman with the same cinnamon-brown
nail polish that Brenda wears. Since the face has been mutilated, identification
is made based on the nail polish and hair color.
The plot was probably fresh at the time this book
was written but not so much 70 years later, as I recognized a couple of twists
for what they were. One point that was not cleared up to my satisfaction was
the taxi driver that followed the Abbotts around. He turned up at odd times for
no reason that I could see.
I appreciated the precise references to colors,
as I also tend to notice the exact shade I’m seeing. I would like to know what
Schiaparelli blue is, though; a later reference said it is blue violet but I
could not find a sample on the Internet. A doorman’s uniform was described as
“faun-colored”, which I assume is an editorial error that someone should have
called it “sleek” and The Saturday Review said it was “readable.”
Phillips, also known as Hugh Pentecost, wrote a dizzying number of mysteries
under both names, earning him the Grand Master Award from Mystery Writers of America in 1973.
His first mysteries were about a gambler in New York City named Danny Coyle and
his assistant Claude Donovan, nicknamed Harvard. The Fourteenth Trump (Dodd, Mead, 1942) is
the second one.
Coyle used to be a bookmaker but now he specializes in betting on anything at
all that interests him. Currently his favorite bet involves the local district
attorney, whom he loathes. The DA’s office is being investigated by a special
committee headed up by Congressman Terry Reardon. Danny has bet a quarter of a
million dollars (nearly $4 million in 2019 dollars) that when the investigation
is complete, the DA will be out of office.
fiancé is found standing over the body of a man in his hotel room, holding a
gun that has been recently fired. She denies involvement, saying she just arrived
and found the victim, but she’s arrested for murder in what appears to be an
open-and-shut case. She refuses to talk to anyone, including Reardon, but she
does ask Harvard to pay her gambling debt of forty-seven hundred dollars (worth
just under $74 thousand in 2019) at a questionable bridge club.
assumes the arrest is a frame set up to embarrass Reardon and by extension,
himself. He throws himself into the investigation to salvage his bet and his
reputation, looking at the bridge club and its gun-toting staff closely,
especially after he determines that the play in the club is rigged in favor of
the house. Harvard’s girlfriend decides to help things along and engages in a
flirtation with the worst of the thugs at the bridge club, putting herself and
Harvard in danger.
Danny is a likeable character who inspires loyalty among his legion of informants. My favorite is Mickey, who runs a dice game in the subway station late every night to take advantage of men waiting for their trains. An involved plot includes an intricate examination of timing and of clocks that may or may not have been changed in order to provide an alibi. A plot twist from out in left field in the last chapter or two reminds the reader that the book was written during wartime.
The Fugitive Pigeon
by Donald Westlake (Random House, 1965) is one of the MWA Grand Master’s comic
mysteries. I’ve read Westlake’s Parker books, written under the name Richard
Stark, and loved them, but never got around to his capers, of which there are
many. This story is one of the early ones.
Charlie Poole is a bum and knows it. His father
vanished early in his life and his mother worked hard to raise Charlie, but
Charlie has not shown the slightest interest in accepting adult
responsibilities at age 24. After not being able to hold a job for more than
two or three months, his uncle by marriage gives him a job running a bar in Canarsie
in remote Brooklyn. The bar steadily loses money and Charlie worries about it
but his Mob-connected uncle explains that it is supposed to lose money, only
Charlie never quite understands the logic behind it all. Once in awhile Charlie
accepts a package from a courier and then turns it over to someone with the
proper code words but other than that Charlie leads a quiet life, providing
drinks as requested and watching television, then going upstairs to the nice
small apartment that is provided as part of the job.
Until one night when a couple of serious-looking
men enter the bar at closing time and attempt to kill Charlie. Charlie escapes
and runs to his uncle, who refuses to talk to him, telling him the uncle
doesn’t know what Charlie has done to antagonize the Mob but the uncle can’t
afford to get involved. Charlie is convinced that if he can get to the man who
ordered his demise that he can explain that he hasn’t done whatever it is they
think he’s done.
Charlie evades the goons again by the thinnest of
hairs to find Artie Dexter, the only friend he can think of who might be awake
at 4:00 in the morning; fortunately Artie is holding an all-night party. Once
everyone gets some sleep, Artie is prepared to drive Charlie to visit Mr. Big
on Long Island to explain his innocence. Charlie and Artie arrive at the
palatial estate to find Mr. Big recently murdered and everyone believing Charlie
is the culprit. Artie and Charlie once again bolt by a miracle, this time
taking Mr. Big’s daughter as hostage.
The ensuing car chases all over New York are fun, and his meeting with Mr. Big’s boss, an avid bridge player who resents the interruption of his weekly card game, is a hoot. As usual, Westlake can’t put a foot wrong. A great quick read.