Sometimes you just have to bite a bullet: following the exceptionally sad loss of the Rue Morgue Press, this is the final Jeff and Haila Troy novel currently available, but, well, let’s enjoy it, eh? Audrey and William Roos did such a great job with so many aspects of the writing in these first four books — the dialogue is genuinely funny, the plots mostly move at a great pace, the mysteries are intriguing, and third book The Frightened Stiff is a genuine genre classic for all time — that we shouldn’t get too weighed down with lamenting their unavailability. Common sense will prevail, they’re too good to let go out of print for any length of time, and this won’t be the last we see of the Troys. Right?
And, we start with an impossible crime! Woo! A man is stabbed in the back when his position puts him in plain view of everyone from in front and the terrain behind him makes an approach from that direction too difficult to consider. On an entirely personal level, the Central Park setting of this was especially nice because I was in Noo Yawk last year and spent many an hour wandering around the lakes, bridges, and unusual terrain utilised herein. Familiarity is by no means essential — no extra insider knowledge will help you solve this — and everything is described with a clarity and confidence that makes the situation easy to follow and quick to print itself on the mind, but if this is the last Roos book I get to read, I’m going to go out in full appreciation
And so, against the background of amateur replica model boat enthusiasts (one of the many unusual flourishes brought to the Roos’ writing), Jeff and Haila investigate…sort of. See, for a novel of detection, there’s actually very little detecting. Undoubtedly the plot and events that comprise it are very finely thought through — it might not seem like it at the time, as there’s what appears to be a moderate amount of padding, but wait until you finish before dismissing it too lightly — but this does at time veer more towards thriller territory with its late night attempted shootings, sinister phone calls, damsel-in-distress motif, and eventual motive for the murder. It’s so light and fast and easy to read that you’re unlikely to care, though, and anyone who makes Hoboken sound even mildly appealing in any way is obviously doing a great job…
Much like watching someone gifted in prestidigitation expertly flourish their way through a pack of cards, we get all the essential ingredients here touched upon lightly but meaningfully: Haila trying to obscure the view of her taxi driver’s neck with cigarette smoke so as to banish the memory of the dead body, actor Tony Gilbert’s self-disgust at the injury which keeps him merely playing a soldier on stage at a time when men are still being shipped overseas, the shifting allegiance of the ‘sour-faced’ William Phillips from baleful object of obstruction to something else and possibly back again, the immutable attitude of the wheelchair-bound George Mead and the way this spurs his daughter Penny into action…it’s all there, all readily at your fingertips, and seems to take up no space at all.
And, of course, it’s also hilarious. The Troys probably benefit from being written by a married couple here, as their dialogue should read like carping and bickering but is shot through with so much respect and love, and has a tongue so thickly in its cheek it’s just as well it isn’t written phonetically, but from conversations about beef stew to Jeff’s inability to leave Haila behind on that trip to Hoboken (and, indeed, the people they meet there) you sort of find yourself wishing that more people spoke to each other like this. As I said in my review of Policeman in Armour by Rupert Penny the other week, it’s beyond mere mortals to be this light and funny all the time, but reading this you forget that and just get swept up in it very happily indeed. Now that’s good dialogue.
The solution won’t delight you all, but I would like to remind anyone who gets too vocal that there’s a very famous example of this kind of problem which does the same thing far less well and to near-universal acclaim. So button it. There’s also not so much interest in the…I’m gonna go with nosocomial aspect of the crime here as there was in that Rupert Penny book, but I think that’s the nature of the beast: if you’re able to pay close enough attention to all the strands that you can pull out these flaws as they occur, well, you’re probably missing out on the fun that makes such a huge part of the appeal of these books. Issues can definitely be found, and I don’t deny them, but every so often you’ve just got to admire what’s good, especially whan it’s this good, and enjoy a bit of fun for the bit of fun it’s meant to be.
Ah, dammit, here’s hoping we see more of these guys before too long…
11 thoughts on “#193: Sailor, Take Warning! (1944) by Kelley Roos”
Kelley Roos was, arguably, the greatest discovery I made through the Rue Morgue Press. I absolutely love their work and rank them among my favorite mystery writers, which includes the Great Carr. As you said, The Frightened Stiff is an absolute gem, one that’s as funny as it’s clever, deserving of a better reputation than it currently enjoys. I actually got a dozen or more people to read the book (even Ho-Ling has reviewed it), but it doesn’t seem to have done all that much for its reputation.
Anyhow, your opinion of Sailor, Take Warning! seems to pretty much coincide with mine. It’s about as fun as The Frightened Stiff, but the plot legs one or two paces behind. Not as strong on detection as it is on its humorously storytelling. However, it is still a solid entry in the series.
I also hope we get more reprints of Kelley Roos in the future. Rue Morgue Press had There Was a Crooked Man in their section of upcoming releases, but they never got around to it.
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Yeah, since I discovered Carr elsewhere first, I’d have to agree: Roos would be my favourite discovery from RMP, too. And as it was your enthusiasm for The Frightened Stiff that put me onto thm in the first place…many thanks!
Glad this book was a good read as I was put off buying it due to my not so good outing with If the Shroud Fits. What sort of role does Haila have in this book would say? Because I think that was part of the problem in the other book for me.
Haila is undeniably the driving presence of Jeff’s involvement here — he is reluctant to look into the murder when asked, and she does something to sort of spur him on. All said and done, though, she is then very much the Watson once again, though perhaps less in need of saving on a semi-permanent basis as she was in Made Up to Kill and ItSF.
The Rooses do a fabulous job of making them equals in terms of their attitude and approach, too: she gives as good as she gets, and won’t be kept out of a thing just because Jeff tels her so. It’s more the Halia of The Frightened Stiff, for sure — it feels like they finally worked out how to make both chartacters work together in that book and are exploiting it here. All the more reason we need more of these to be reprinted!
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I discovered the Roos novels in Dell mapback editions … no, I wasn’t buying them off the news-stands when they first came out! 😉 I should add that the mapback of this particular volume is infamous for having the map give away the answer to the mystery. But don’t worry — unless you know the answer you won’t see it, frankly.
I think Jeff and Haila are literary descendents of Nick and Nora, which is not a bad thing. As I understand it, Jeffrey Marks is working on a volume that discusses all these Bright Young Detective Couples — hope we see that soon!
Reminds me of the covers — the front covers — of Edmund Crispin’s Swan Song and Carr’s Constant Suicides which gave away the mechanics of their impossible murders…in somewhat difficult to miss form!
A book on Bright Young Things is much needed; will look forward to any news on this, thanks for mentioning it.
Would it be possible to read this before reading ‘Frightened Stiff’? So that the best can be kept for the last…
It would, yes; I certainly don’t remember more than a passing reference to the setup of TFS, and certainly no discussion of the solution or anything like that…
Just discovered RMP, sadly, as I was attending a used book store having a going out of business sale. I picked up the 3 Roos books and an additional 15 for only $2.50 each. They had an additional 20 or so that I will try to get in the coming weeks before the store closes. The books all look like fun, and am quite sorry to see that this publisher is no longer with us. But…..I have a lot of good reading ahead of me, as far as I can tell.
Oh, Bryan, some wonderful discoveries lie ahead! There were some excellent titles kept in print by the RMP — Roos, John Dickson Carr/Carter Dickson, Michael Gilbert, Constance & Gwenyth Little, Catherine Aird, Stuart Palmer, Pamela Branch — and I’m sure you’ll enjoy a lot of what you find.
Thankfully a lot of them have now been picked up by other pubishers, but some (like Delano Ames, Clyde B. Clason, Glynn Carr, etc), while not among my personal favourites, might now languish OOP again, and that’s a real shame. Seems weird to me that now in the 21st century, with POD publishing and self-publishing as prevalent as it is, it’s still so difficult to track own a book that was once in print. But that’s a lament for another time,
Enjoy yourself, and let us know how you get on!
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