Wednesday, March 9, 2016
NEGLECTED DETECTIVES: Julia Tyler
Louisa Revell’s series character, Julia Tyler, is a 68 year-old retired Latin teacher who has read way too many detective novels and she likes to remind the reader of that very often. The first book in the series is flooded with references not only to fictional detectives and their authors but specific titles which Julia, her great niece Anne, and Anne’s husband Dick Travers talk about with the enthusiasm of today’s comic book fanboys. Since Boardman chose to publish The Bus Station Murders I thought it might be something along the lines of D. B. Olsen’s very bloody mysteries depicting ax murders and violent shootings. Louisa Revell’s style of mystery, however, is as far from Olsen’s gory “pseudo-cozy” as she is from the private eye subgenre. She turns out to have chosen -- of all people -- Leslie Ford as her model detective novelist. References to Ford far outnumber any mention of Hercule Poirot, Mary Roberts Rinehart or Mignon Eberhart who are frequently talked of in the series. That Julia Tyler’s relatives live in Annapolis and the first two books are set in the American southeast may not come as a surprise to readers who know Ford’s books with their Washington DC, Maryland, and Virginia locales.
Smith’s knowledge of life in Annapolis, the presence of the navy wives who dominate that society, and the intricacies of naval etiquette form the background of The Bus Station Murders. Like Ford she is very much concerned with the artifice of the American Southern aristocracy, the class and servant issues that betray a South still clinging to its antebellum past and trying to reconcile its racial prejudices. Julia Tyler is a strong personality -- opinionated, slightly snobby and unapologetic in her intolerance for the hypocrites of the world. Oddly, she often resembles those whom she is attacking with her dismissive exclamations. “I didn’t really care for him,” “What an idiot!” and similar thoughts are openly admitted throughout the narratives of the first three books. Her disdain for hypocrites is contrasted by her attraction to unusual personalities. Often she surprises herself when she is enamored of people whose charm may in fact be a cover for a darker personality. Had it not been for her forthright nature in discussing her own contradictory personality in choosing who appeals or doesn’t appeal to her Julia might have become utterly intolerable herself. Strangely, I found that Julia Tyler grew on me the more I read of her adventures.
When a naval officer’s widow is stabbed on a bus Julia finds herself suspected of the crime along with all the other passengers. The murder investigation allows Julia to meld her passion for fictional murder with real murder. She and Anne and Dick spend their time discussing the peculiarities of the crime (e.g. the murder weapon is a steel knitting needle), the all too convenient coincidences tying several passengers to the murder victim. Interestingly, Julia’s gut instincts about a couple of the passengers dismissed by Inspector Ben Kramer as not being real evidence ultimately prove to be correct. Had the stubborn police officer taken her advice and followed up on her hunches the other deaths that followed might easily have been prevented.
Julia is perhaps the epitome of what an amateur detective should be in fiction. Having no real encounter with real crime but relying only on the fanciful stories of mystery writers she follows the tenets and practices of her favorite characters. With an inquisitive nature and a forthright yet slightly devious way of asking prying questions she gathers information and sifts through the chatty anecdotal dialogue that makes up the bulk of the book. But she doesn’t ever really come to any conclusions. She may be the narrator, we may get to know all the characters through her often patronizing point of view, but as a detective she is unsuccessful. She has hunches but is always missing something important – usually a motive. The cases are always solved by someone else in the story.
Fans of female detective characters like Maud Silver and Grace Latham will find these mysteries to their liking. Even if Julia is not exactly the best of sleuths she has proven instincts and her observations about human nature have a contemporary American flair that still rings true. And it is hard not to take a liking to her very American sense of humor and the unexpected moments where she lets her guard down and we see her compassionate humble side.
Julia Tyler Detective Novels
(Reviews on this blog are highlighted with links)
The Bus Station Murders (1947)
No Pockets in Shrouds (1948)
A Silver Spade (1950)
The Kindest Use a Knife (1952)
The Men with Three Eyes (1955)
See Rome and Die (1957)
A Party for the Shooting (1960)