#514: About the Murder of a Startled Lady (1935) by Anthony Abbot

About the Murder of a Startled Ladystar filledstar filledstarsstarsstars
This is another title brought to my attention via the Roland Lacourbe-curated list of one hundred (well, 114) notable impossible crime novels.  If I’m honest, I still don’t know what to make of that list — containing as it does some wonderful books that aren’t impossible crimes, some poor books that aren’t impossible crimes, and some thoroughly glorious impossible crimes that would otherwise have passed me by.  This one is…fine.  While the impossibility isn’t up to much, there’s enough interest in the approach taken to commend it if you can find a copy.  Would I put it among the hundred best, however?  Er, no…

Anyhoo, a few points of interest: Ellery Queen-esque, ‘Anthony Abbot’ is both our author (also like Queen a nom de plume, though this time of just one man — Charles Fulton Oursler) as well as a central character in the book.  Not the detective, that distinction falls to Police Commissioner Thatcher Colt, but instead the Watson, making this something akin to Anthony Horowitz’s recent offerings minus the meta aspects (and Abbot seems not to mind being called “Tony” quite so much…).  Abbot distinguishes this undertaking from the expected GAD fare, however, with an introduction that very much moves us away from the standard Queenian approach:

There is a romantic fallacy that [the American police] Force is hopeless when faced with a clever crime; indeed many persons hold the departments of the country in contempt and derision.  From short stories and novels they seem to have gained the impression that puzzling crimes are solved only by brilliant amateurs.  These whimsical creatures of the story-teller’s imagination, a printed army of amiable dilettantes of the current fiction, are gentlemen of inexhaustible knowledge and accomplishments … Their avocation is to catch elusive murderers, when the police detectives are ready to confess their utter ineptitude for their own business.

That quote tells you a lot of what you need to know about this book, really.  There’s a lot of truth in it, there’s a certain amount of sting, it constructs its argument well, and it does so at excess length to bring about a conclusion that could have been gleaned in about half the space with double the impact.  It also has about it a certain whiff of horseshit, since really the only distinction between Colt and the ‘amiable dilettantes of the current fiction’ is that Colt has the words “Police Commissioner” before his name.  Seriously, never before have I encountered  professional policeman who yearned so hard to be a Genius Amateur.  He should relinquish the title and earn four times as much in consultation fees.

As per that quote, this book starts intriguingly: spiritualist Eva Allen Lynn — “the female of the mediums, is supposed to have a message from what she calls her spirit guy—”  — and despite being caught by a police operation with “forty yards of cheese cloth daubed with luminous paint” about her person insists that she has news of a murder to impart.  The voice of a young woman calling herself Madeline has manifested itself and described both the manner of her own murder and the location where her dismembered body is to be found.  Putting aside a far more interesting plot where Colt uses a medium to “get in touch with the spirits of murdered persons, and these shades…would accuse the guilty killer”, instead they investigate this one lead at the urging of Professor Gillman, an associate of Colt’s, and…find the remains of a young woman, murdered and disposed of as stated.

As the always perceptive Mike Grost says (see the link below to his review), “Abbot does not describe the kind of physical impossibility we associate with G.K. Chesterton, John Dickson Carr and their successors. Instead, this tale is…a case of apparently supernatural knowledge that eventually is explained in realistic terms”.  The ‘how’ is revealed by the halfway stage, and it’s a shame that the book sidelines the Lynns before and after for a more standard investigation, because they’re possibly the most interesting part of the whole thing.  Mrs. Lynn is, for one thing, quite unrepentant about that cheese cloth, claim it is necessary sometimes to fake a result when her powers are all ‘used up’ and she finds herself exhausted.  There’s a great commentary here on the nature of spiritualism and belief — especially in light of the ‘why’ of this impossible knowledge, revealed at the very end — and it’s possible Abbot doesn’t realise it’s there, if only because it’s possibly the one element of the book not gratingly overwritten.

Anyway, the remains are found, Colt gets to show off the sort of esoteric knowledge that I simply do not believe any detective — professional or amateur — would possess, which is especially irritating after Abbot went to such pains to point out how this sort of thing isn’t going to happen here, and a deeply fascinating treatise on the science of reconstructing faces over skulls is unfortunately lost in a sort of zero-sum game of detail: yeah, you learn a lot, but you suffer for doing so.  And then…the rest of the book sort of happens.  At the start of my review of Sweet Poison (1940) the other week I made mention of giving up on three dud books, which seemed to elicit far more interest than the book under discussion at the time, and I can now reveal that this was one of them.  Coming back to it has made me appreciate the crispness of Abbot’s prose at times, but that prose then gets left out of the fridge too long and begins to wilt and stale as more and more is added to it.  For two weeks in a row, I find myself desperately wishing I had been an editor of detective fiction in the 1930s.

So…it’s fine.  I’d read another Abbot title if I could find one, because I want to like more about how he writes and it feels like a thin plot might be being stretched out here to cover a larger-than-necessary page count.  The supernatural framing used in this is a nice touch, and the surrounding circumstances make it a little more interesting than otherwise might have been achieved, but with that out of the way this fails to commend itself above many other books doing the same thing — and with fewer pretences to being something ‘different’ — from around the same era.  Which may, I suppose, be why he’s so hard to find these days: on this evidence, the effort needed isn’t really repaid by anything you won’t find a hundred times more easily (and cheaply) in a hundred other places.  I still can’t decide if the rating above is a little harsh, but when you compare the supernatural elements of this with the dull plot elsewhere there’s a steep drop off that it’s difficult not to rue, and I’ve not experienced this much squandered potential for a long time.

~

See also

TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: The apparent supernatural knowledge of the mediums is a neat variation on the impossible crime story and is adequately, if a bit dully, explained. Its main problem is that I have seen other writers propose more inspired solutions for this type of miracle problem, but otherwise it’s an excellent and competently plotted detective story with a great dénouement set in an operating room where the doctors are in the progress of stitching together the second victim.

Mike Grost @ GADetection wiki: Unfortunately, after its early sections, Startled Lady declines into a far more ordinary novel. Most of the suspects in the book are unpleasant, even psychologically abnormal. Much of the book is taken up with descriptions of their emotionally disturbed personalities. There is also a consistent tone of sordidness struck throughout, something that is not typical of Abbot, and not consistent with the personality shown in his other works.

24 thoughts on “#514: About the Murder of a Startled Lady (1935) by Anthony Abbot

    • Many thanks — I’m keen to see how he applies himself elsewhere, because there’s definite promise with the spiritualism angle here. The rest feels almost like he sighs, rolls his eyes, and goes “Well, let’s do some of the expected usual bullshit, then…”

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    • THE CREEPS is not an Oursler book although it has the “Anthony Abbot” pseudonym plastered on it. It was ghostwritten by pulp writer Oscar Schisgall. THE SHUDDERS is also ghost written by the same guy.

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  1. I think I liked Abbot’s later fare better than his early novels. “The Creeps” and “The Shudders” I remember as being better than all the earlier “About the Murder…” titles.

    I have a pet theory: Like the early novels from Queen and Van Dine, Abbot’s writing would improve a lot for me if I read them translated, particularly if that translation was made after WWII. I have everything by all three authors, and while most of EQ’s oeuvre has been translated into Swedish, only a bit more than half of Van Dine’s has, and only two of Abbot’s – both of them published between the wars and one of them only published in a magazine.

    Their prose is a bit of a slog, and I think that the later Swedish translators made a bit of judicious editing. The older translations are still very florid and verbose, but the later ones feel more crisp and concise. I don’t think they are abridged, it’s only that they use more modern language that flows a bit easier. For this reader at least.

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    • Their prose is a bit of a slog, and I think that the later Swedish translators made a bit of judicious editing.

      On this evidence, I can’t say I blame them…! Cut maybe 20% of this away and it would be great. I have no problem with a book being long, but you want it to use that length for some purpose, not just restate a lot of stuff and trudge through uninspired reheatings of material already seen near-verbatim in a lot of other places. If you’re gonne do that, be quick about it!

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    • While Roland Lacourbe and I don’t always see eye to eye* I liked this one when I read it eons ago and I don’t think it was because of a translation that improved on the original – French translators at the time were rather prone to do the opposite…

      I’ve never found his prose or Queen’s or Van Dine’s prose to be particularly sloggish but it may be a cultural thing – we French never had a Hemingway or a Leonard to anathemize adjectives, adverbs and long sentences.

      * M. Lacourbe, while often perceptive, often displays a vandinian indifference to the actual literary merit of his favourite books and writers. Plot is everything to him and the rest barely matters. That is not my approach at all and so I often find his picks wanting.

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      • The reasons why something connects with a reader can be difficult to unpick, hey? In principle, the tedium of Freeman Wills Crofts should be anathema to me, but when reading him I am spellbound and will churn through all manner of faults in his prose and plotting because something about his writing just speaks to me. Equally, I’ve reviewed two books on here in the last year or so — Family Matters by Anthony Rolls and The Voice of the Corpse by Max Murray — that if someone sat me down and talked me through them in detail I’d dismiss in a heartbeat, and yet I rated both 5 stars and stand by that.

        As for Elmore Leonard…I have to say, considering he who wrote the rule “Leave out the bits that readers skip”, I found a lot to skip in the couple of his books I tried, so maybe the French are on to something after all with their stodgy translations…

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  2. I’ve always been slightly frustrated that I can’t procure a cheap copy of Abbot’s novels – especially since they don’t seem to be available on Kindle. But looks like I’m not missing out on much. 😅

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    • I lucked out finding a pretty decent condition copy with a mostly-intact DJ…so of course it’s a book by an author no-one knows and no-one will ever want to pay me lots of money for.

      Man, it’s a good job I’m not relying on these books to provide me with an income stream when I retire, eh?

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  3. I liked this one. The early forensics and fake spiritualists are interesting and it’s always fun when investigators have to start with nothing but their own ingenuity. It is too long, though.

    Mystery writer Vera Caspary worked for Oursler at a magazine syndicate in the 1920s and LOATHED him. She goes off on him in her autobiography for being weasely and sucking up to the boss. GAD authors: they have petty workplace feuds just like us!

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    • This was one of the few books to really sell the spiritualism angle, which is part of why I enjoyed it so much — the rest of the time, the authors and audience know it’s fake and so it feels like it’s passed over with a reluctant sort of, “Well, let’s get this over with…” air, but Abbot invests a lot in that shard of the plot, and the characters of the Lynns are very finely wrought.

      Amusing to think of a grudge between those two that was so intense she takes time in her autobiography to stick it to him — man, that’s some serious venom there.

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  4. As I mentioned last time, I have three Abbots, including The Creeps and this one, and I have found him pretty much unreadable. So why do I feel so sorry for him after reading your post? I’m glad Dead Yesterday revealed that Oursler was a pig; now I don’t feel so bad.

    However, the whole Abbot thing is secondary to the tremendous excitement I feel here, for FINALLY you have returned the “like” button to your posts. Now I can express the full range of emotion that bloggers and fans feel in this odd, nearly occult world: like, like, like, like, like . . .

    Liked by 1 person

    • The “like” buttons have returned in repsonse to your previous lamentations, Brad — see, I listen and I care. But if I get loads of phantom “likes” from bots again they’re off and never coming back until the next time they do.

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  5. Huh. Supernatural content and mediums in this one and I remember not a thing about it. I hope you try at least one more before giving up on Thatcher Colt. I just checked the Dec 1937 issue of Saturday Review to read Judge Lynch’s opinion which usual matches my own and he rated STARTLED LADY as “disappointing”. Once again you started out with one of the poorer efforts by a writer new to you. You have a startlingly uncanny knack for doing that. Please stop it! ;^) I still think that you’d enjoy either …NIGHT CLUB LADY or …MAN AFRAID OF WOMEN which are two of the best books.

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    • Once again you started out with one of the poorer efforts by a writer new to you. You have a startlingly uncanny knack for doing that.

      Yeah, I have a feeling that this and turning up 15 seconds too late to catch the bus I wanted might just be my mutant superpowers.

      I shall keep an eye out for Night Club Lady and Man Afraid of Women, thank-you for the recommendations — I mean, I’m unlikely to find them, but hope remains. I will read more by Oursler, and I believe he could well have a couple of excellent books in him, so it’s not over for me and he just yet.

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  6. Hmmm, I’m intrigued and discouraged in roughly equal parts. Flummery surrounding mediums, seances and spiritualism generally gets my attention, but the comments on the readability of it all turns me off. Cracking cover though.

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    • Full disclosure, my copy is a hardcover with no DJ and so that’s probably not the cover it has since it looks like a paperback to me. But of the options available, yeah, I liked it the most — weird giant spider and all.

      If you can get a copy for a reasonable price, the spiritualism aspect is well-worked; anyone who’s been hunting for this for years, however, is advised to cool their jets and read some of the readily-available authors who did this sort of thing equally well — there’s Ellery Queen and S.S. van Dine, of course, but pretty much any “Oh, good heavens, one of us must be the killer!” closed circle mystery will superintend just as nicely as far more cheaply.

      Tell you what, it weirdly reminds me of Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer now I think about it. It’s that sort of mystery plot.

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      • Fair enough.
        I keep hearing how Envious Casca is one the best from Heyer and I must read it for myself – it’s boxed away somewhere the other end of Europe just now though so that’ll have to be a bit later in the year – after having been more or less irritated by Death in the Stocks and then somewhat mollified but still underwhelmed by No Wind of Blame.

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        • I can’t coment on Envious Casca in the context of Heyer’s works, but if it’s the best then it’s nice to know I won’t like anything else she wrote 🙂

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  7. I’ve never actually seen a review of this one, I merely know it from its inclusion on that list. I’ve been trying to track it down for a while, with no luck.

    I had assumed that this would be some powerhouse locked room mystery, so it’s interesting to learn that has more of a seance angle to it. Of course, I’ve enjoyed that sort of plot line in books like Rim of the Pit. Unfortunately it doesn’t sound like I’d enjoy this one nearly as much.

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    • Ah, the advantage of Rim of the Pit is that the senace is only a minor part — imagine if the book had purely been that wonderful opening with the seance and the disappearing ghost…and then lots of people sitting around in a cabin trying to work out who was guilty. It’s not quite fair to couch this in those terms, but it’s not a million miles off, either.

      I’ll hold onto this and hopefully you’ll be in the UK or I’ll be in the US at some piint and I can hand it over — it’s worth reading for Abbot’s occasional insights and the brilliance of his focus when he has something interesting to say. Beyond that…

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