Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Juliet Dies Twice - Lange Lewis

I had such hopes for Juliet Dies Twice (1943), Lange Lewis' second detective novel after having so enjoyed her debut Murder Among Friends. But when I encountered three bugaboos of mystery fiction I thought "Uh oh" and the red flags went off for a trip into the land of cliche and run-of-the-mill plotting. It looked like Juliet Dies Twice was going to be a sophomore slump of a novel. And those three bugaboos? An escaped lunatic, an amateur theatrical company, and a trunkful of Freudian psychological "insight".

The amateur theater business is tolerable for its lack of verisimilitude because Lewis has circumvented the actual structure and process of a theater by making this company a combination student/faculty group on the campus of small university. The building itself is unusual even for an academic theater and it allows the writer to create some unheard of and cumbersome rules like the fact that a prop room is located in a basement far away from the stage and is accessible only by two doors (one inside and the other leading outside the building). The key to the inside door is in the hands of a secretary in a different building and must be asked for in order to access. That's right the theater department doesn't even have control over a key to their prop room. You get the idea how convoluted and contrived the plot is with that business alone. Add to that an escaped lunatic, the abundance of Freud love and completely outdated views of mental illness and it's enough to drive anyone to the analyst's couch screaming for a healthy dose of common sense.

Lewis also seems to have reinvented Lt. Richard Tuck, her very smart and capable police detective for this second outing. Gone are his capacity for compassion and his use of imagination to get inside the head of a murderer. Instead Tuck has been reshaped into one of many cookie cutter detectives in the genre, a wisecracking jaded cop. He shares the crime solving stage with a smart alecky know-it-all amateur sleuth -- the often irritating Eudora York, a psychology and theater major at the college. Together they investigate the murder of a student actress who was to play Juliet in Shakespeare's tragedy and offer up odd theories about the personality of the "fiend" who did the deed.

But the story is redeemed by Lewis' crisp writing and her cast of supporting players. Each of the student actors and actresses has some quirk or idiosyncrasy that makes them stand out from the rest of the cast. They range from five foot five Paul Ober, the best actor of the lot frustrated by his being typecast because of his height to Ames Hanna, Eudora's wealthy playboy of a boyfriend whose sick sense of humor has Eudora worried that he may be a lunatic himself.

Every now and then Lewis also surprises with a scene of poignancy or jolts the readers out of the dream world of play acting and Shakespeare's star crossed lovers into the reality of a country on the verge of war. Midway through the story one of the most superficial actresses – Meg Fife, a graduate student in the theater program – does an about face and allows us a glimpse into who she really is. She laments that the world is changing around her, that the stage once provided for her an escape but now she is afraid. "I've tried to tell myself that I'm seeing the slow crumbling of a philosophy of life which I and all my generation believed to be the only one. There’s khaki everywhere now, you hear soldiers marching past your window early in the morning[...] Everywhere the individual and his aims and plans are growing less and less important. I try to tell myself that's what frightens me." It was the most moving and real scene in the entire book, especially since it has an eerie resonance for our modern times when war and violence seem inescapable.

There are a few twists that call to mind some of the best from Agatha Christie’s cabinet of magic tricks. I was reminded of an overused detective novel trope that crops up most obviously in Peril at End House, but Lewis manages to find a new way to pull off that trick. She fooled me at least. The lunatic will end up playing a large role in the denouement and his appearance helps to explain some of the creakier elements of the contrived business surrounding the baffling murder of Ann Laird. The revelation of the murderer, however, is anticlimactic. With a motive firmly rooted in a reality of ennui and nonchalance the final chapter may have resonance for a 21st century reader. For me I was craving a more satisfying, fantastical solution that merited all the clever puzzles that had held my interest for the majority of the book.

14 comments:

  1. Try Lewis's "Meat For Murder" -- a very strange detective novel, also in the mapback series, but weirdly memorable, at least to me -- and the only other one of which I'm aware, "The Birthday Murder" -- also a mapback. I think Lewis was a very competent writer who was sadly overlooked and could have produced more interesting novels with time.

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    1. Can't wait for MEAT FOR MURDER - a 1940s vegetarian murder mystery! I'm slowly working my way thorugh all the Lange Lewis books. I have them all including her very hard to find last mystery novel, THE PASSIONATE VICTIM, available only in the hardcover 1st edition. Ed Gorman has good things to say about THE BIRTHDAY MURDER, I read that ages ago but have completely forgotten the story.

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  2. John, even though this one wasn't quite as satisfying as you would have like, you know you've hooked me with that academic connection to the story. I read The Birthday Murder back before my blogging days--so I have no real review of it--I just know I thoroughly enjoyed it. Must look for this one....

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    1. Good luck! For some reason it's really hard to find at a good price. After years of looking and holding out for the best copy at the best price I finally snagged one last month on eBay for $10. I was hoping it was going to be up there with her first book (superior to this second effort) and had planned to suggest JULIET DIES TWICE for reprinting at Raven's Head Press, Sadly, it's just not good enough to spend the time to do so.

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    2. When I was behind the counter at a mystery bookstore, I would always get a good price for "The Birthday Murder" by someone who had been told to come in and get a birthday gift for a mystery fan. It was scarce, with a relevant title, unlikely that the recipient would have read it, and the mapback format made it memorable and reasonably unique.
      If Raven's Head will only put good mysteries into print, perhaps they'd consider an all-electronic line for lesser works? I think you have to read a bunch of bad ones to be able to appreciate the good ones…

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    3. Well, Noah, I'm only a selections consultant not the real mastermind of the Raven's Head. If I had my way I'd be reprinting loads of obscure detective fiction writers regardless of whether or not they will sell -- Vernon Loder, Clifford Witting, Helen McCloy and some of the early Coles' books are high on my list of writers who need to reissued. But sales are his goal as they should be for any new indie press. Besides Michael's plan for the imprint is geared more toward reviving pulp fiction and noir not primarily detective fiction of Lewis' type which is pretty tame compared to what we have lined up in the coming months.

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  3. It'll give me something else to hunt for when I go back to that little bookshop in Illinois. :-)

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  4. Not an author I'm familiar with, but a great review and I like the idea of Meat for Murder!

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    1. She's one to check out, Martin. Even a weaker book like this one is worth reading for Lange's writing alone. The Birthday Murder (probably the easiest to find because it was reprinted often) was chosen by Jacques Barzun as one of his Top 50 Detective Novels back in the mid 1980s. Supposedly it's her best. I still think her first Murder Among Friends is her best for its very modern touches, especially the motive for the murder.

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    2. I just found a paperback used copy on Abe Books for THE BIRTHDAY MURDER for 3.49 and free shipping. Ordered it immediately. :)

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  5. While I might not like this book - I don't know, I've never read it, I must take issue, John: I love an escaped lunatic. Ha. I really do. I don't mind it at all, it usually livens up the works. Most especially if it's a cunning escaped lunatic. Like Christie used now and then.

    I do love that cover. Dell usually had some terrific paperback covers way back then.

    Do you remember a book where the head of an asylum improbably turns out to be the escaped lunatic after much huffing and puffing and red herrings galore???

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    1. Then this is the book for you! Astute readers will recall two months ago I raved about THEY CAN'T HANG ME that features an escaped loonie, but he was introduced in Chapter One. I didn't like this because the lunatic was revealed about one third from the end of the book. I thought it was contrived in order to tie up a lot of odd parts of the plot.

      Can't think of a book with that motif but it does occur in an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents with Ray Milland. That show was based on a short story by Robert Bloch. The same story served as a framework for an anthology horror movie called ASYLUM.

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    2. If you can't think of it, John, then I must be making it up. Still...I could swear...Maybe I'll get a brain wave. Miracles happen. :)

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  6. Sounds fascinating John - not crazy (sic) about the escaped lunatic cliche either though I like the am dram side (if done well) - must try and find BIRTHDAY if that's the easiest - thanks,a s always, for the guide to the mystery roads less travelled ...

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