#827: Dead Man’s Gift (1941) by Zelda Popkin

Dead Man's Gift

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Elderly mining magnate Michael Carmichael has died, leaving behind one of the great Terrible Wills of Fiction in which money is bequeathed to various relatives in reparation for indignities endured on his behalf or at his hands. But the heirs so-named, gathered in Carmichael’s home as directed in his will, not only deny these claims but also can’t seem to agree on who the man was to each of them — uncle, great-uncle, maybe a cousin of some hue or stripe — and investigator Mary Carner, brought along by pulchitrudinous shopgirl Veronica Carmichael, suspects that something fishy is going on. And then rising flood waters force everyone to stay the night. Cue chaos.

In principle, if not quite in practice, Dead Man’s Gift (1941) by Zelda Popkin has a lot going for it: colourful cast thrown together in a rapidly-escalating situation, forced to defend their (potentially not-so) good name against accusations from a dead man while caught up in a tontine that you just know is going to turn murderous at some point. And because Mary Carner is as much an outsider to the group as we are, the reader is never quite sure what’s true and what’s hysteria or invention. There is also some wonderfully gloomy writing — a railway depot striking Mary as being “too bleak, too dismal, even to lay out a corpse in” or the gathered crowd at the Carmichael mansion described as “the miscellaneous tatterdemalions the sentimental rich ask in for Christmas dinner” — topped off by a sort of narrative astringency that pervades the opening third of the book.

With the will read, the flood waters invading the house, and everyone forced upstairs to await their rescue, somehow the life goes out of events. Of course murder intrudes, but the series of events we’re asked to follow — shootings, a naked wet form moving through a group in darkness, a hand weilding a knife over an awakening Mary — seem scattershot, without the misleading undulance that brought us here. Now it’s all knife chords, all the time, taking an EIRF turn that’s actually more confusing than narratively engaging. On certain occasions, I couldn’t even follow the sequence of events we were supposed to perceive: there are too many people in too many unknown rooms, and in the rush to press on to the Next Event, Popkin drains the life from the cast of misfits so that everyone simply becomes an accusing finger or an earnest denial.

However, in the little moments Popkin is superb: Michael Carmichael’s ménage forming a “nodule of hostility” in the face of these interlopers ahead of the reading of the will, say, or the striking situation in which the body is found once murder rears its head. But when these snapshots are required to fold into a larger plot or purpose, the air goes out of any intrigue: Mary is able to resolve a few matters by observations that she made and we were not privy to, which is fine, but these flashes of perception seem to occur when Popkin decides that it’s time to take one event or question off the table if only so she can keep track of what’s going on. Several times, a revelation was dropped and I found myself going “Ohhhhh…and?” because the immediate impact on the situation or our understanding is minimal at best.

Doubtless things are not helped by the fact that this book also has some of the weirdest chapter breaks ever committed to the page. Like, chapters just stop, and you turn the page and something else is happening (which, I appreciate, is how chapters typically work). Why did we choose that point of zero drama or insight to move on? It undeniably feels as if Popkin wanted to be somewhere else in the house, or to look at a different aspect of the plot, and could find no way to get us there so just hurries us on to the next scene because this one has probably gone on long enough now. I don’t wish to drag on about this, but in 20 years of reading this genre, this might be the first time I’ve ever had my attention drawn to the sheer oddness of where a scene has broken. Improvisational theatre does a better job than this (well, okay, that may be going a little too far).

Morning comes, and Popkin breaks the frail spell she has cast by taking us from the house and into the company of others who have been caught up in the floods, and again some wonderful writing saves us in the midst of uncertain plotting:

Everybody had a tale to tell, a private narrative of bravery and suffering that made the flood seem almost personal spite, each one surprised and a little hurt to find that others had suffered too.

From here, the book’s contents are then repeated to the police with no additional elucidation, then the police repeat bits of the story back to the household to ensure they’ve gotten it straight, and then Mary goes off, does a little digging, and gathers everyone together to once again recap the events of a few days previous as prelude, you hope, to explaining what actually happened and why. Except what Mary really does is explain a murder no-one had previously detected, and then the killer — possibly the least surprising “Good Heavens, It’s You!” revelation in the whole of fiction — confesses and half-explains some of the events from earlier in the book. Is that knife-weilding hand in the darkness ever explained? I definitely skipped a bit here and there to get past being told again of events that were far from compelling first time around, so some of the finer points may have eluded me. I’m okay with that.

There are one or two interesting ideas here, but Popkin seems rather too callow in the dark arts of the puzzle to really exploit them. Ben at The Green Capsule — see his review linked below — compared this unfavourably to Murder on the Way! (1935) by Theodore Roscoe and, while I have an additional interest in that book, it’s difficult to disagree: Roscoe cranks the whirligig to an almost delirious level while keeping events clear, the causes and outcomes compelling, and the situation tense and urgent. Dead Man’s Gift elicits a raised eyebrow or a fleeting smirk at some delightful minor moments, but I struggled to remember these people or the events they went through even as they were happening on the page in front of me. Case in point: I’ve only just remembered that the murder Mary unravels is technically an impossible crime — an oversight which speaks volumes and probably makes this a good, if sudden, place to stop.

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Ben @ The Green Capsule: The author has a lot of balls to keep in the air – various murders, the flood, a weird cast of characters, armed people sneaking around in the dark, the burning oil slick – and yet she only seems able to focus on one ball at a time.  There’s never a moment when the story becomes the cacophony of horror that the various elements deserve.  Either we’re dealing with the flood, or we’re dealing with the murders, or we’re dealing with (somewhat forgettable) detective Mary Carner digging into the backgrounds of the strange cast.  But we never get hit with it all at once.

TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: Dead Man’s Gift is an interesting and well-done example of what many now consider a clichéd situation of a group of people isolated from the outside world – and it’s slightly skewed approach makes it interesting for seasoned and beginning mystery readers alike. It’s something pleasantly different without wandering away too far from the detective story.

17 thoughts on “#827: Dead Man’s Gift (1941) by Zelda Popkin

    • Thanks — I felt my opnion of this crystalising as I was writing about it, which was very pleasing, because I orignially got to the end and didn’t know what to make of it at all…!

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  1. It’s an unfortunate squandering of an outstanding setup. Put those plot elements into the hands of Roscoe, Talbot, or Carr and you’d likely have a classic on your hands. Instead, The Dead Man’s Gift is one of those delicious looking desserts that ends up tasting pretty mediocre once you bite into it. Strip away the flood and you’re left with… I don’t know, maybe Anthony Abbott?

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    • Great analogy for this book. Unfortunately I found the same with Popkin’s Murder in the Mist (nice Dell mapback with a good set-up and atmosphere), but the author never delivered and I had trouble finishing it.

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      • Hmmm, I wonder if this mght be a feature of her writing, then. Someone really should have paired authors up in situations like this: one writes the first half, one writes the second, each playing to their strengths. Hake Talbot would have had a field day with the second half of DMG…

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        • The shame of this is, the Dell mapbacks of her books look amazing. I feel no desire to rush out and read more of her work, but simply for their sheer physical loveliness I can’t say I wouldn’t buy more by her from this publisher specifically.

          Thankfully, they’ll doubtless prove to be too rare and/or expensive for that to ever be an issue, however.

          Liked by 1 person

    • The first third of this — opening chapter aside, in which it feels like Popkin is punching down at working class folk for being working class and unintelligent — is brilliant: arch like the best Christianna Brand, neat character portraits, a weird situation that gets only weirder the more you find out…Popkin’s sense of the dramatic is wonderful. And then she needs to resolve those factors, or at least put them to use for plot purposes, and most of that savagery, that anticipation, just dissipates and you’re left with confusing descriptions of character movements or events that exist purely because they’ll add ‘tension’ or ‘intrigue’.

      I call this Moving Toyshop Syndrome.

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  2. As I stare out at the hazy, weirdly-colored sky that reminds me I live in Perpetual Wildfire Country, I can’t help thinking that if we could divert Zelda Popkin’s crew to the raging forest fire over at John Xavier’s hilltop lap in Ellery Queen’s The Siamese Twin Mystery, we could at least save lives!! Which is an ironic goal, considering the genre we’re dealing with.

    This is too bad, as I periodically search through eBay’s long file of available Dell Mapbacks and find this bizarre illustration quite eye-catching. It seems Dell published a LOT of mediocre mysteries in this intriguing format. It doesn’t say much for mid-century mystery authors, but it is a masterstroke of marketing! The recent mapback I found of Hags Nook for $4.00 in a bookstore makes the whole thing look more exciting than I dimly remember it being.

    BTW, I can’t seem to do Twitter, but I noticed here your announcement that The Invisible Host is being re-issued. I read it centuries ago and remember enjoying it, but it’s definitely second tier compared to And Then There Were None. Sometimes a theft can be beneficial to the people, and it may be that Christie was the Robin Hood of mystery plotters!!! (The movie version of Bristow’s book is terrific!!)

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    • The map back of Hag’s Nook was the first GAD novel that I ever purchased, and I think I got it for $3. At the time it was a bit of a gamble in expanding my locked room reading beyond the short story form and I didn’t realize what a map back was. I purely bought it because it was cheap, had a cool cover, and I had some vague idea that Hag’s Nook was a decent enough showing by Carr. I will say though that I still hold Hag’s Nook to be an outstanding story and probably among Carr’s twenty (if not fifteen) best (we’re turning your post into a Carr conversation btw JJ).

      Any plot summary of Dead Man’s Gift is bound to make it sound alluring, and both JJ and I were on the hunt for this book for the same reason I think. I’ll tell you that I was beyond excited when I finally got it, but yeah, not so much when I read it.

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      • Hag’s Nook shares with Dead man’s Gift a superb, eerie, unusual setting that is squandered on uninteresting answers to far more enagaing questions. Come on: the MacGuffin in HN is so pedestrian, it’s like something out of Edgar Wallace.

        That book will always have a place in my heart, but I don’t think I could put it in Carr’s top 15. Mad Hatter always feels to me like the actual debut of Fell, but then maybe I’ll reread it and not get on as well as I remember. I have a tendency to do that…

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        • I’d eat treasure hunting MacGuffins all day. They should be a requirement of any mystery novel. In fact, I’m reading a very late-era Carr novel right now where the allure of finding a stash of recovered Spanish gold hidden away in a thoroughly inspected mansion is my absolute driving factor at this point, even though I know it will probably amount to nothing.

          I mean, throw a hidden treasure into And Then There Were None and you’d have a masterpiece (I’ll just leave that here and see what happens…)

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          • Requirements for all detective fiction novels:

            A treasure hunt
            Two cigarette adverts
            Three floor plans
            Four eggs
            175g Butter
            200g Self-raising flour

            Wait, no, sorry I’ve started baking a cake there…

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    • Looking forward to reading Bristow’s The Invisible Host. I didn’t know that was being re-printed so good to learn that. Indeed despite the over the top acting and histrionics, I did like the film version of this book as well. It’s available on YouTube.

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    • Always remember that the ratings I put one stuff are my opinions at the time: we disagree over the merits of Messrs. E. Queen, remember, so there might yet be mileage in this for you and others.

      And, hey, at least the mapback here has some relevance: sort of matters who is where when in the map shown, unlike Pick Your Victim by Pat McGerr, where the mapback is essentially an office building because some of the people in that book work in an office.

      As to The Invisible Host: I fully expect Christie’s take to be better, I’m just intrigued to see what someone would do with that setup when the book they almost wrote could have been And Then There Were None. You’d be kicking yourself, wouldn’t you?

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      • I urge everyone not to get too excited over The Invisible Host and to dial back your expectations, because the story is more pulp than detection (not even good pulp) with a superficial resemblance to Christie’s And Then There Were None. That resemblance is the only reason why the book is even remembered today. Anthony Berkeley’s Panic Party has a better claim as an inspirational source than The Invisible Host. So the reader has been warned!

        Anyway… This time, I can’t blame your questionable taste or shoddy judgment for a bad review. Zelda Popkin was a kindred spirit of Gladys Mitchell and I know how much you like her. However, I thought Dead Man’s Gift was a vast improvement on Murder in the Mist, which has Popkin’s plotting and storytelling in full GM mode. You would probably start yelling at that one halfway through! 🙂

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