It’s been a fun ride with Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page, but now we reach the end. A mere five books came from these two ladies under their Roger Scarlett nom de plume, and it’s thanks to the tireless work of the folk at Coachwhip publications — and GAD’s own Curtis Evans — that these hugely enjoyable novels have been made available again. Because enjoy them I have, and my feelings about this final volume are amplified by having read all that preceded it; without that context, I (and possibly you — be forewarned) would not have gotten quite as much out of this last hurrah. As it is, and as you can clearly see above, I loved it to bits.
My chief form of relaxation outside of reading is running, so allow me to attempt an analogy. When you first try running as a pastime, you go slowly, questioning at each junction whether to keep running because you know you have to turn back before you get too tired. As your running prowess and stamina improve, you’re able to better judge distances and efforts: you hold back not because you fear wearing yourself out, but because you know how much energy will be required to run a certain distance at a certain pace. The first is hesitancy born from inexperience, the second is informed judgement made from a position of knowing your own abilities.
In the First Degree (1933) may at first seem like the former: the plot is apparently slow to get going, and might read like the sort of hesitant extending of an untried talent into a new genre. After all, it does take quite some time for Norton Kane to move into the Loring mansion having received a summons from old Aaron Loring himself in fear for his life, and then…not much seems to happen. The denizens of the house — Aaron Loring, confined to bed by untold illnesses, his young wife Sara, off-page until quite some time has passed, and her older sister Julia, a study in contrasts who might be the most interesting case in the book — are either a throwback to the Gothic days of slow plots and obvious villains, or else some sort of quantum leap forward into the realms of Domestic Suspense not really mined until the 1950s, and, well, there’s also a dishy, moody doctor whose aims are all too clear and who could equally crop up at either end of the spectrum.
And yet this is very much the second kind of running: a masterful, restrained, elegant piece of brinkmanship that is allotting with an expert hand the precise mood and measure of every look, action, and overheard snatch of conversation, all honed under the fine pointillisitc nature of detective fiction:
It was as though he has been for a long time isolated from the world and had suddenly been plunged into a foreign life. The people whom he passed seemed unreal, their activity futile. The lights of the shops and the streets were garishly bright. He was like a man dropped from darkness into day.