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.
And then murder strikes, and that bizarrely contradictory house is thrown into sharp relief. Suddenly the retinue of classic tropes is felt in full force and the full refulgence of the Golden Age is found: floorplans, who-was-where-when, contradictory explanations for behaviour, at least one person claiming to have spoken to a man who must have been half and hour dead, suspects showing “a remarkable unanimity” in having alibis for the murder, a will made out to someone’s detriment, and, most tellingly, two doctors disagreeing about the cause of death of our victim (one of them having not even examined the body…). The inexorable grind to bring us to this point is actually a magnificent achievement — the temptation to race ahead just have been strong, but each piece falls with a satisfying regularity, and the slow, even-handed nature of the clues and occurrences stretched the nerves and the wild speculation of the mind ingeniously. And the solutions you entertain are all mentioned by the two-thirds point, too, so which do we choose?
Kane finds himself in an interesting position: technically there under false pretences, though also not exactly incognito, he must decide whether events are to be investigated under his professional banner or whether “deal[ing] with events as a private individual” might not have its advantages. A possible snarky aside on the prevalence of the amateur detective? Given that this is a book by two women in which the male lead feels “a deep admiration for [the] composure” of a woman whose oldest friend is on the verge of death, especially as she “even remembered to thank him as he helped carry [the victim] downstairs”…who knows? There’s no doubt a touch of the satiric in some of this, and it’s to be lamented that Blair and Page wrote no more in the genre after publication of their fifth novel. What a talented pair they were, and how much more they could have brought to these fabulous mansion mysteries.
I’m annoyed with myself for suspecting, dismissing, re-suspecting, and then finally dismissing the eventual solution for not being able to see it work. There’s one piece of hand-clappingly wonderful misdirection here which I shall fawn over in my memory for years to come, and the sempiternal joy of being wrong-footed is only heightened by having been on the right track only to veer away at an expert touch. The only flaw I can really level at this is the info-dump of the final chapter, but in all honesty I’d rather that over some 80-page slow reveal of conversation (where some character has to stand there and go “Good heavens! And to think if only we’d…” — Blair and Page either wanted to be out of the genre quickly, or trust their readers enough to join such dots themselves). For someone who has been known to maunder on for 3,000+ words when I get going, I’m a fan of brevity in others. Maybe 2020 will finally be the year that I practise what I preach…
Anyway, this is a wonderful send-off for a very enjoyable series, and best read with some context of their earlier books lest you fail to appreciate my running metaphor above. The only other author I’ve seen handle this small a cast so impressively is Christianna Brand — not bad company to find oneself in, I think you’ll agree. Now, what else is there in the Coachwhip stable that I’ll enjoy this much? Recommendations greatly appreciated, because I am going to miss “Mr. Scarlett” and his brand of ingenuity.
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: You can almost read like a nostalgic homage to the Victorian-era thriller with dark secrets and shifty characters slinking around in the rooms and hallways of a gloomy, moldering mansion. And that all pervading fear that something dreadful is about to happen. This large, sprawling mansion proved to be a perfect backdrop for such a story as the place has an abundance of empty rooms, only occupied by the memories of the past, which has this sense of “beautiful neglect” about it.
Ho-Ling @ The Case Files of Ho-Ling: The mystery plot taken on its own is quite decent, but not without some flaws. It might not be as bombastic as Murder Among the Angells (with a murder in an elevator among others), but I do like what the plot is aiming for, and the clewing is adequately done, but there’s just one part of the murder scheme that seems insanely difficult to pull off. It’s shrugged off with a “Sure, it was risky, yes, but it worked”, but everything would’ve failed immediately if it hadn’t worked out like the culprit had intended. I don’t expect realistic naturalism from my mystery novels (no, please), but I think the reader is quite correct if they want to object to this point.
The Roger Scarlett mysteries of Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page, published by Coachwhip Publications: