There are times when it’s possible to pinpoint the exact moment when a novel doesn’t fulfil its promise, and given the intricacy of many novels of detection these can sometimes be very keenly felt. Perhaps the detective is an absolute duffer (an accusation frequently levelled at Freeman Wills Croft’s Inspector French), or the guilty party comes disappointingly out of nowhere (as in John Dickson Carr’s The Blind Barber), or perhaps the solution offered up to a brilliant problem is a shade on the simplistic side (the disappearance from the locked bathroom in John Sladek’s otherwise-superb Black Aura springs to mind). For this second novel by husband and wife team Kelley Roos, I’d say the main problem is in the selection of the victim: the setup is excellent, the characters are a delight, and come the murder…the most obvious victim is selected and the book never quite recovers.
Elsewhere, there’s enough going on to signify important progress from their entertaining-but-flawed debut Made Up to Kill (1940): where the revelation of the killer there required a hefty monologue to fill in all the gaps that needed resolving, there’s certainly much more here in the way of threads to direct your suspicions towards the appropriate party. A truly classic piece of misdirection early on is note perfect in its bold assumption and will sail by all but the most cynical and untrustworthy of GAD readers (though, after a while, I think we all become suspicious of everything).
There’s a marked improvement in the quality of the prose, with sharper descriptions of settings and a much finer sense of New York, helped by some very effective early utilisation of the oft-overdone pathetic fallacy:
The rain was driving down with a new violence. From somewhere in the west came the crack and then the muffled rumble of Autumn thunder. The wind whistled in the narrow cavern of Ninety-Third Street. And fifty blocks downtown, according to Julie, a murder has been arranged.
What this does is help keep everything on the right side of fatuous; I don’t really go in for screwball comedy – I persevered through the increasing absurdity of Alice Tilton’s Dead Ernest out of significantly more determination than enjoyment – and this is a superb example of how to be funny in detective fiction without getting funny about detective fiction. Yes, there are coincidences, and, yes, the whole thing may come to rely on some alarmingly poor choices made by certain people, but the fundamentals of the plotting and the characterisation of those people involved still need to be grounded in something approaching reality for me. This is done here superbly, helped by Haila Troy’s increasing unease and the hysteria that grips certain characters at certain times.
The dialogue, too, is awesome, capturing the vacuous air of a starlet who’s heard of Stalin because “he’s somebody in Europe or someplace”, or abounding in crisp wit alongside such character beats such as in the following exchange between Lieutenant Wyatt and the increasingly-exasperated photography assistant Kirk Findlay:
Wyatt scowled at his flippancy. He said nastily, “How do you pay your rent?”
“I don’t,” Kirk snapped. He had lost his patience. “I live in a tree. One of the trees at Radio City.”
Wyatt ran his eyes over Kirk’s good-looking tweeds. He smiled a thin smile.
“And your clothes?” he asked
Kirk was getting mad. “I made them out of the bark. The Rockefellers are furious, but helpless. They can’t climb.”
“You should write, Mr. Findlay.”
“You should be a detective, Mr. Wyatt.”
And, of course, I haven’t even touched on the characters yet. If there’s a more appealing crime-solving couple than Jeff and Haila Troy – and one that skips so effortlessly over every single charming note without a single misstep – then I want to meet them. That Jeff is kept out of the book entirely for the first third only gives you more to relish in the note-perfect line of dialogue that finally brings him into the action. Again, the investigation Jeff undertakes is motivated by more than just bullish belief in his own abilities – there’s something appealingly both shy and exuberant about him, as if the role needs to be played by a puppy, and this makes him and his wife wonderful company and very easy to root for.
I try to be understanding when a novel has got so many of these sort of things right and, in Roos’ (or should that be the Roos’?) defence, they got everything pitch perfect in the book that followed this – The Frightened Stiff is one of those yardstick books, if you don’t like it then you’re simply not going to enjoy classic detective fiction. If the plot lets them down a little, and if the investigation in stymied by this as a result, at least the way it’s done, the people you get to spend time with, and the process of being swept along by it are all a huge amount of fun.