Friday, May 27, 2016

FFB: Said with Flowers - Anne Nash

THE STORY: Doris Trent and Nell Witter are two middle-aged women who own The Flower Shop in Pinecrest, a northern California town not far from the San Francisco Bay area. It's a few days before Christmas and their only employee has slipped, fallen, broken both legs and is now recuperating in a hospital. How will they ever cope with the onslaught of last minute Christmas orders for people who say it with flowers? A fortuitous visit from a stranger who just happens to have a wealth of knowledge about plants and flowers and is charming to boot seems to be "a gift from God," as Nell puts it. His name? Barney Miller! But he's not a cop. They hire him on the spot. He works well with the customers and does a better job with choosing and carefully wrapping plants than poor Patrick in the hospital.  Can he be too good to be true? Is it too coincidental that he appeared so conveniently? When a woman is found dead in the alley behind the shop and it appears to be yet another victim of a serial killer who has been murdering beautiful young women Doris and Nell suspect Barney may have chosen their shop as a hideout while he continues a murder spree. Of course the mystery of why Barney is at the shop proves to be more complicated than that.

ATMOSPHERE: Said with Flowers (1943) was one of the many "specialty mysteries" that were cropping up in the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s. Perhaps already the savvy editors at Doubleday Doran's esteemed Crime Club imprint who published Nash's book had recognized that murder mysteries set in florists, libraries, department stores and other unusual locales with women amateur sleuths terrorized by stalking murderers were just the gimmick to sell more books to insatiable readers craving new spins on the detective novel.

This was Anne Nash's first book. From the very first paragraph it is clear Nash is emulating the Mignon Eberhart school. As narrated by Doris, who prefers to go by the nickname Dodo, the story is littered with lines like this: "And it was I--unknowingly, innocently, but it was I nevertheless--who helped the murderer commit the crime." And throughout the novel Dodo wavers between trusting Barney as a good worker then disbelieving his presence is anything but sinister and a curse. Barney is made to be the obvious villain of the piece, but anyone who has read these kinds of books just knows that all his mysterious behavior will prove not to be villainous but purposeful, albeit for ulterior motives that are not fully revealed until the closing chapters. There is a burgeoning forbidden romance as well and the reader is meant to be rooting for the lovers to survive all the violence and terror, come out alive and well and headed for the wedding aisle.

The story is overly complicated by the subplot of the serial killer who inexplicably leaves drawings of fish on his victims. The search for this criminal, dubbed "The Karp Killer" by some cynical reporters, is almost completely unnecessary. There's never really any threat to anyone and the character exists only so that Barney can be suspected of being a charming psychopath on the lam. Despite an attempt to obfuscate and confuse the reader with weak red herrings it is clear that the murder of Rosalind Vance is merely a copycat killing because the crime doesn't fit the killer's M.O. Even though a fish drawing is pinned to her corpse she's too old, she was stabbed, and her body is found buried in a trash pile -- details that do not fit any of the circumstances of the previous nine victims' deaths. While all of this seems to be very modern for the 1940s remember that multiple murderer tales had been written by the scores throughout the 1930s, most of them by British writers, some even include the gimmick of copycat killing.

THE CHARACTERS: Dodo is a typical narrator of the Rinehart/Eberhart school. She's not really not that interesting and her indecision about Barney's guilt or innocence gets to be a bit wearisome. On the other hand her tart tongued partner Nell is more than welcome when she's on the page. Brash, forthright, opinionated and one helluva wiseacre Nell provides the much needed enlivening to all the HIBK claptrap that makes up much of the story. The suspects are types pulled from the Central Casting catalog of murder mystery characters. There is the embittered older sister, the devious husband, a ne'er do well creep who seems to be too interested in women half his age, an assortment of gossipy harridans haunting the florist shop with catty criticisms of wilted flowers and, of course, the young girl in peril who is the object of Barney's affection.

INNOVATIONS: There aren't many to be found here. The story is overloaded with plot devices pulled from the Victorian sensation novel trunk. There are many secrets in the characters' past including the old motif of a child born out of wedlock that shamed the family. Continuing in this vein Dodo has an unnaturally prudish reaction to Barney's penchant for heavy duty swearing. There are four separate references to one incident of Barney swearing up a storm of curse words and foul language that make him seem like the Devil incarnate. She talks about his speech being indicative of pure evil. It's all a bit laughable to most modern readers accustomed to salty and vulgar language.

I will mention an unusual use of a trained dog to literally sniff out clues. The minor policeman character Mark Tudor has a dog named Svea that helps find evidence. The dog comes in very handy at a climactic point late in the story.

Another notable aspect is the rare way with which Nash deals with grieving. Probably because the novel combines the backdrop of a florist's business with the irony of a murder taking place at Christmas time Nash takes advantage of the way people express their emotions through the purchase of flowers. The title of the book becomes a multi-layered metaphor. Grief is openly discussed in a way that made me notice how often that expression of emotion is so rarely brought up in detective novels of this era. When I came across this comment late in the novel I felt that my observation was even more justified: "What can we gain by learning anything more? [...] What good will it do to find out who killed Rosalind? It won't lessen our grief any." For her observations on the futility of crime solving in the face of inexplicable violence I give Nash several bonus points that more than make up for the shortcomings of her debut novel.

THE AUTHOR: Anne Nash wrote three books all of which feature Dodo and Nell and a couple which have Mark Tudor. Her fourth and last mystery novel is a stand alone with no series characters and is set in a California boarding house. The way Nash talks about Svea in Said with Flowers is indicative of a genuine love for dogs. She may have been involved in dog breeding or the care of dogs based on the descriptions of Svea and the dog's behavior in a way that only a true dog lover would write about the animals. In fact, her love of dogs plays a major role in her third novel, Cabbages and Crime, in which the two women travel to Death Valley to help run Dodo's cousin's dog boarding kennel and a murder once again involves them.

EASY TO FIND? Act now before midnight, as they say on TV infomercials. Said with Flowers was published in hardcover by the Crime Club in the US and Hammond in the UK. There is also a US paperback reprint by Bart House. All three editions pop up for sale every now and then with the paperback the easiest to find. Currently there are a handful of the Bart paperback copies being offered for sale online. As for the other mysteries by Nash your chances are much bleaker. I found very few copies of the third and fourth titles for sale and absolutely none of the second title Death by Design.

Ann Nash's Detective Novels
Said with Flowers (1943)
Death by Design (1944)
Cabbages and Crime (1945)
Unhappy Rendezvous (1946)

12 comments:

  1. Oh my goodness, what wonderful covers. And the book sounds like fun too, with an interesting setting. I will definitely be on the lookout for these. Thanks for the introduction to a new author (if I can find affordable copies).

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    1. Skulls and skeletons galore on this post. I aim to please. ;^) Happy hunting!

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  2. You sold me, John. Just ordered a copy from Amazon for a buck fifty. Can't beat that. Course I have to pay shipping but it's still a deal. Hopefully it won't have been sold from under me already. :)

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    1. Oh, I'm sure you'll get it, Yvette. Any time I read a mystery with dogs (that aren't hurt or killed) I automatically think of you. I've just read three mysteries in a row with dogs as major characters. Not planned, just plain coincidence. In fact, one of them had a sleuthing bloodhound named Gardenia -- "because she smells so good."

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    2. :) Ha! I hope you're planning on writing about these dog books, John.

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  3. I think the style of the narrator would drive me nuts though I am far from averse to the basic premise, and always great to find out that the niche cosy started a lot earlier that one might have presupposed - thanks matey!

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    1. I bought the book because I thought this would be one of the few innovative serial killer novels of the early 1950s. But the Karp Killer has nothing to do with the main story at all. It's a pretty pointless plot device. Ah well...onward and upward.

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  4. A new author for me (Nothing new there) John. But seriously I dont think I'll miss much if I never get a chance to read her.

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    1. You are 100% accurate in your estimation of Nash. I won't be reading any of the other books in the series. There wasn't enough to interest me in this debut to read more about Nell and Dodo. I almost bought two other Nash books, but I'm glad I resisted succumbing to the lure of cheap prices for two very hard to find books.

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  5. I'm struck every time I read one of your analyses, John. They're so much more than reviews, so well laid out. You didn't sell me on Ann Nash--but I'm guessing if you couldn't no one can. And yet, should I happen upon a copy in our used-book store or at the next library sale, I just might be unable to resist.

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    1. Gee thanks, Mathew! I'm glad someone recognizes that my posts are more than just reviews. I like to think of them as literary critiques in miniature. Honestly, Nash wasn't too exciting for me, but the dog stuff and the treatment of grief in the novel was very unusual.

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  6. I just picked this one up last fall--my last book binge before our anniversary trip. I couldn't resist the Bart House edition...only my second one at the time.

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