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 recentofferings 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.
D for Doom @ Vintage Pop Fictions: Despite the supernatural trappings this is essentially a traditional puzzle-plot mystery with some police procedural overtones. I’m not sure it’s entirely fair play – there is one important clue which in my opinion remains unexplained and the essence of the puzzle-plot mystery is that the solution should not leave any loose ends. Apart from that one false step it’s a decent enough plot. And Abbot comes up with a very neat and very clever variation on the traditional ending in which the detective gathers together all the suspects to reveal the solution. The solution itself is reasonably satisfactory.
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.