The plot is deceptively simple here. Who would want to murder a terminally ill woman? Isa Yant was on her deathbed with only a few days of life remaining and yet someone felt it necessary to poison her. The poison was not self administered as she was not able to eat or drink without assistance and Roden is sure that it was given to her in food or as medicine by someone she trusted. Almost immediately this causes a furor among the majority of the characters as sensitivities are riled, Roden is accused of slander, of being a meddler, and judging people. When he gives the information to a newspaper reporter eager for a juicy scoop the news is published with the headline ISA YANT MURDERED BY INTIMATE! and all hell breaks loose. Roden is now accused of libel and is challenged by Isa’s husband Clark, her sister May, May’s husband, the family nurse and a local physician. About the only one who does not come down hard on Roden is Isa’s father-in-law, old man Caleb, a crotchety old coot who firmly believes that Isa’s illness was “nothin’ but fakery.”
Roden is also adept at the kind of detective work only a country man could master. When he finds a horse tied up to a sapling with a slip knot and the area showed no signs of any other horse ever being tied there he is convinced that the rider of the horse is a woman in a hurry. He reasons that no man would ever tie up a horse to a weak and young tree like a sapling and never would a man tie a horse to anything using a slip knot. He goes one step further and figures that the woman in a hurry was also acting surreptitiously since the sapling where she chose to leave her horse was in an area far off the main road, a bit into the woods, out of view of anyone who might be passing by.
That is not to say that Roden does not cheat a bit at being a detective. For all his cleverness about the horse, the sapling and the slip knot, for all the insight into the behavior of bullfrogs at nighttime he still is not reluctant to spy on his neighbors. There are scenes where Roden creeps about underneath window sills eavesdropping and snooping into people’s home who happen to leave their front doors unlocked. He may show signs of ingenuity with the animal world but when it comes to spying and snooping on people he is lacking in subtlety and often gets caught.
There is also a polemical section in the book where Roden mulls over the motives that differentiate male and female murderers. He posits that men and women each have three basic “drives” that will impel them to commit murder. Women he says will kill for love, display or ease. Men he says have women, freedom and power as their main drives for murder.
Love, ease, display. If a woman commits murder, it is for one of these. Without them life would be worthless; for them, no chance is too great. She wants the exhilaration of knowing that a man finds her irresistible, she wants to queen it around, and she wants to be the lady of leisure, stretching like a cat in the sun. If a woman killed Isa Yant, it was a woman who would thereby gain the love of a man or the riches of Clark Yant; riches that would enable her to...take up again the old life of display...
I’ve never heard murderous motives described in such sexist, narrow minded terms. I take issue -- as I am sure anyone would -- with most of what he says as being typically female. Even for 1943 it seems incredibly ignorant. He talks of men desiring women, that their drives are purely biological. Women can't have these drives? He also says that women are not seeking after power. And most insulting of all: "Woman doesn't hunger for freedom. She is docile." Whoa! Is Roden is acting as the voice of Cunningham here? If so -- woe to him. I wonder if Cunningham ever married. Roden, on the other hand, is a confirmed bachelor with an affection deeper for his band of hunting dogs than for women. Yet strangely in this book he has the first inklings of being genuinely attracted to a woman - one of the suspects by the name of Mary Bird. The reader hopes he will score big with her, but his awkwardness in never having taken the time to understand a woman's feelings and his stubbornness in conducting the investigation interfere. Based on his thoughts outlined above it should not come as too much of a surprise that he does not win the girl.
I enjoyed this book immensely as a wonderful example of how a detective novel can also be a novel about American life. It perfectly captures the shift in an old-fashioned backwoods America and post-war life. Already in 1943 the farms were dying thanks to government assistance and incentives, the quiet of the country was disturbed by fast talking young men in their fast and noisy automobiles, and modern advances in medicine were changing the way a country doctor could treat his patients. All three of these signs of the times will prove to help Roden in solving the murder and unmasking a rather vicious and nasty killer.