Friday, December 6, 2013

FFB: The Judas Cat - Dorothy Salisbury Davis

A mysterious death, a bizarre murder method, a locked room, inheritance schemes, fraudulent wills, secrets galore and a horde of suspects unwilling to cooperate -- all the makings of a grand old detective novel of the old-fashioned school. Dorothy Salisbury Davis takes these intriguing ingredients of a traditional whodunit recipe and created The Judas Cat (1949). She whips up a tale of long held family secrets while simultaneously exploring the effects of small town's population at the mercy of corrupt businessmen and an opportunistic mayor.

The death of 92 year-old Andy Mattson arouses the curiosity of reporter Alex Whiting and Chief Waterman. The man is found in his locked home with a starving and out of control cat prowling the outer room. Mattson died from an apparent heart attack according to the coroner, but with a look of utter terror on his face that leaves Alex Whiting asking several questions. What exactly happened in that room to terrify the old man? Was he frightened to death? Why was the room locked? Why did the cat need to be killed to prevent it from attacking the two men investigating the scene? Delving into the life of the reclusive nonagenarian Whiting and Waterman uncover a secret side to Andy Mattson known to only a few. He was a toymaker of ingeniously designed wooden wind-up figures and had sold many of them to a toy manufacturing factory in the next town over. Mattson was also a mathematical wizard with superior engineering skills and had collaborated on some designs for hydraulic equipment during World War 2. Both the toy designs and hydraulic equipment lead to another inquiry into the legal ramifications of patent ownership that complicate the plot and provide a strong motive for Mattson's possible murder. Add to these facts the search for a hidden will and there is quite a bit of fuel that make Mattson's death seem less than natural.

Davis in her first crime novel shows a mastery of both plotting and characterization. Though on the surface it has the appeal of a puzzling detective novel at the heart of the novel is a profound study of the after effects of a violent death on the entire population of a town. From the nosy neighbor Maude who clearly knows a lot more than she's willing to tell to the Machiavellian town mayor to a sinister veterinarian the cast of characters is rife with intriguing personalities with plenty of skeletons in their closets. A climactic town council meeting that s calls into question the investigative methods of Chief Waterman and his unorthodox use of a newspaper reporter as a deputy is one of the highlights of the story. During the meeting the chief accuses the mayor of plotting with wealthy Henry Addison, owner of Addison Industries and is sure that some business chicanery is at the heart of Mattson's death.

Anthony Boucher one of mysterydom's most insightful and prescient critics, called The Judas Cat "rewardingly perceptive novel" and predicted that Davis would be a writer to watch in the future. She proved to live up to the promise of this first captivating novel with a run of top notch suspense stories that further developed the crime novel and elevated out of the realm of the too often maligned whodunit.

7 comments:

  1. Something about this style of mystery always has me giggling in places that aren't supposed to be funny. Is it really good? Or just a good example of its particular sub-genre?

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  2. It's because the word cat is in the title, right? And the toy factory part. I know. Seriously, though I guess the way I played up the "cozy" elements of this book it does sound a bit silly. Nothing could be further from the truth. It's smart and vicious. Nothing is laughable at all. Even the business with the toys comes off as eerie. There is an air of menace throughout the whole book. Davis is underrated and gets the short shrift among the women American crime writers like Charlotte Armstrong and Margaret Millar who were writing simlar style books and are still widely revered. Read my review of A Gentle Murderer to see how much Davis matured by her third novel.

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  3. Oh well, at first I thought this is a book for me. But....! A starving cat gets killed? Jeez.

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  4. No, the toy factory sounds cool. It's the fraudulent wills, inheritance schemes and horde of suspects that gave me pause. I'm glad you clarified, because "smart and vicious" isn't what I was getting at all.

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  5. I've had Davis on my To Be Found list for quite some time...she's been remarkably difficult to find. I have managed to snag one...A Gentleman Called...but it says that three of her characters (without telling me who) are making a return which makes me suspect I should read earlier ones first (so not to spoil the story where they first show up).

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    1. The Fantastic Fiction site lists three books in what it terms "The Mrs. Norris Series". The first one is titled DEATH OF AN OLD SINNER and A GENTLEMAN CALLED is the second. The only other book in that series is titled OLD SINNERS NEVER DIE.

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    2. Thanks for the tip, Ron. I hadn't gotten around to checking on the series yet.

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