As someone who has recently found more joy in certain books upon rereading them, I appreciate the many ways context can affect how we respond to a book when we encounter it. And so when I say that I read Dancing with Death (1947) by Joan Coggin at the right time, I suppose it is to acknowledge that I was fortunate enough to be in the mood to appreciate its many subtle touches which might, at any other time, have passed me be entirely. It’s very much not my usual kind of thing, but a break from the norm is often encouraged and, in this case, turned out very well indeed. One is left to rue the fact that Coggin wrote only four books, that those books are hard to find, and that she spoils the solutions of two of them in the first chapter here.
Finally free of the restrictions of wartime, Dorothy ‘Duds’ Lethbridge invites various friends and extended family to join her and her husband Tommy for Christmas: “After all, we don’t know how long the peace will last, so let’s have a little pleasure while we can. We shall feel pretty sick when the next war breaks out if we have wasted the whole of the time in between”. And so it’s the Duds’ great dismay that the people she invites down — cousins Flo and Jo, Flo’s husband Gordon, Sandy Ferguson “who is a sort of cousin too”, and Henry Dumbleton, with whom Duds had something of a pre-war fling, and his wife Irene — make such bad bedfellows and leave her feeling more depressed than she was before organising the whole thing.
The title promises death, and death there is, but you’re made to wait over half the books for it, so it’s a good job that this ‘orrendous octet make such entertainingly bad company. Gordon’s so bland you want to brain him with a bedpan, war-afflicted Sandy, carrying a torch for Flo, is still furious with Jo over her behaviour when they were children, Jo carries out open flirtations with anyone possessed of a pulse and a Y chromosome, and Irene Dumbleton is an incorrigible chatterbox who rarely has anything of consequence to say. Best — or worst — of the lost is Henry, though, who has now lost his charm completely and strikes Duds, and everyone else, as little more than a know-it-all and insufferable bore.
Even when the bridge players reached the end of their last rubber they had to go over every card again and explain why they had played it, while Henry told them how much better it would have been if they had played something else.
Things go wrong almost from the off, and Coggin is remarkably adroit at capturing the various attitudes of the guests without ever laying it on too thick — c.f. the scene in chapter 3 when everyone is expected for dinner at 7:30 and slowly arrives at their own pace and in their own idiom — and manages to set the mood of her players with lovely descriptions:
[E]veryone had settled down for a nice chat, with the exception of Sandy, who was well through his second whisky and was looking a cross between an enemy agent and the first part of an advertisement for a patent digestive mixture.
The narrative tone of this is very much art of its appeal, and one of the reasons I’m so glad I caught it at the right time. Forgive the deep cut, but if Lucy Angkatell from The Hollow (1946) by Agatha Christie ever wrote a novel, it would read like this: scatty, loosely-formed, faintly disengaged because it was keeping an eye on about seven other things at once, happy to take its sweet time getting where it’s going, but charming as all hell along the way.
Duds sighed. She was afraid she had let herself go a bit, but what with the housework and the garden and the animals, there was not much time nor money to spend on oneself and one’s appearance. And the last time she went to London and had her hair done at the most up-to-date place Tommy had said, “I say, darling, hadn’t you better do your hair? There are some people coming to dinner.”
At times it’s so frothy that it almost fails to have any substance at all, such as the dismissal of Sandy’s wartime years spent in a POW camp as providing “some glamour” to him as opposed to being the awful experience it would have been understood to be, but then Coggin will catch you out with some surprisingly earthy writing, like Jo’s reflections on being the younger twin — meaning that her sister inherited their grandfather’s money — and how she cannot bear to accept any of Flo’s repeated generous offers to share her wealth. Indeed, given the mid-book surprise the narrative springs on Duds, if not the reader, there could be an argument that the excessive frivolity is simply an extension of Duds’ insistence on having everything back the way it was, given that “life is so dreary nowadays, with nothing to eat, nothing to drink, and nothing to wear, and no way of keeping warm”.
When murder does intrude, and it’s moderately frustrating that Coggin drops her narrative structuring to deprive us of the discovery of the body, Duds summons her good friend Lady Lupin Hastings to help — well, Lady Lupin is summoned in the first chapter, with the first half of the book then jumping back in time to allow the matter to marinate — and before long Lady Lupin is indulging in the post-Golden Age prerogative of faintly aristocratic female detectives to get very intuitionist about interpretations that can be put on evidence. Now, again, this should not work for me, but taken as a sort of comment on the ingeniously insightful detective who unerringly sees the truth is even the most complex schemes, there’s something rather charming about Lady Lupin — one gets the impression that she wears a lot of bangles — and her stumbling around and happening the accidentally her way into the correct way of seeing things.
Does the key piece of deception on which the killer’s scheme hang work? Not really, but it’s an enjoyably classic piece of reframing, even if it does require someone to suddenly remember aspects of the killer’s character in the final chapter (after the unmasking) to enable the links to be joined up, and I rather enjoyed the weaving in of something so redolent of the genre’s heyday into a novel which had been, really, anything but to that point. The final fillip, added to the delightful character work throughout, is what really compels this, and I’m grateful to Galileo Publishers for sending me a review copy so that I could experience Coggin’s particular slant on the genre. Not one for the detection purists, but if you’re looking to step outside of your usual and try something a little on the fringes, you could do far, far worse than Dancing with Death.
2 thoughts on “#1046: Dancing with Death (1947) by Joan Coggin”
Glad it went down so well. But inevitably there are those books that you have to be in the right frame of mind for – some just won’t be able to drag you there.
Well you enjoyed this one more than I thought you would, but glad your reading mood coincided with it. Who Killed the Curate? is probably the most “traditionally” structured one out of the four. Book two might drive you batty and book 3 might be a matter of waiting for the right mood to strike you again. Some interesting character psychology at work there. I think Galileo Publishing might be aiming to reprint more by Coggin, but I am not 100% sure. If you are still in the mood for reading books which delay the murder, then I would get on to Clifford Witting’s Subject: Murder pronto!