Friday, August 1, 2014

FFB: Murder at the Women's City Club - Q. Patrick

The prolific and multi-partnered Richard Wilson Webb teamed up with Martha Mott Kelley under his Q Patrick pseudonym and wrote two novels. Cottage Sinister (1931) was their first followed by Murder at the Women's City Club (1932). This second team effort from Webb and Kelley shows some slight improvement mostly in the tight plotting if not their tendency to indulge in nonsensical chit chat and quirky character traits. The most remarkable thing about Murder at the Women's City Club is that there are only three men among the large cast of characters: Inspector Manfred Boot,  Bob Dunn a journalist, and Sebastian Thurlow, fiancé to one of the women suspects.  The mostly female cast, therefore, allows the writing partners to spend a bit too much time with gossip, bitchy verbal catfights and other eccentricities in this dialogue-laden mystery novel. Oddly, while I was bothered by this kind of speech and chit chat in Cottage Sinister it works well in this book and is only enhanced by a baffling series of murders that border on the impossible crime subgenre.

Dr. Diana Saffron, ex-dean of a Women's Medical College and currently Professor of Internal Medicine, is being cared for by her devoted friend Deborah Entwhistle and watched over by her protégé Dr. Freda Carter at the Women's City Club. Dr. Saffron is irascible and demanding and very much disliked among the rest of the residents of the club. Among the permanent guests are Mrs. Mabel Mulvaney, the dictatorial president of the club, Constance Hoplinger, a ditzy mystery novelist; Amy Riddle, dutiful social services worker; and Millicent Trimmer, Secretary-Treasurer of the club and the one burdened with listening to the almost daily complaints from the other members. One night Dr. Saffron is found dead in her room having apparently committed suicide by turning on the gas tap located directly next to her bed. But there are whispers of murder when the Dr. Saffron's room is gone over by Inspector Boot. Too many oddities in the bedroom don't add up to a clear picture of death by suicide, like the partially open window and the puzzling discrepancy of the two gas taps, one open and one closed. When a second death by gas occurs Boot is convinced there is a mad killer hiding amongst the residents of the Women's City Club.




The plot is tricky and a bit convoluted with a neat twist in the finale. Manfred Boot is a gruff, not very pleasant policeman who does admirable detective work. In the end, however, he is upstaged by Deborah Entwhistle. She has been doing detective work of her own both on and offstage and comes up with the somewhat startling solution to the deaths. And there is also a final surprise in the last sentence.

Amid the fine detective work by both professional and amateur is a primary focus on the characters' idiosyncrasies. The action is enlivened by absurd exclamations from Constance Hoplinger (published under the pseudonym "Gerald Strong") who treats the murder investigation as a sort of writer's laboratory. She plans to use the circumstances surrounding Dr. Saffron's death for an exciting chapter in her current still unfinished novel and keeps pestering Boot for insider police information to give her work authenticity. Webb and Kelly have also thrown into the pot a pair of not so funny comic servants. They are a married black couple who, typically for this era, behave and speak like cartoons with their embarrassing phonetically rendered dialogue and foolish superstitious antics as when one literally jumps into a closet to hide from the police. The maid Cornelia, especially, seems to have escaped from the pages of an Octavus Roy Cohen book and seems very out of place here.

I liked the sequence when Boot having had his fill of "Gerald Strong", aka Miss Hoplinger, decides to read one of her books to get an idea if she's smarter than she appears. He discovers in the pages of The Black Serpent a plot with remarkable similarities to the murders committed at the Women's City Club. In Strong's novel the victim was murdered by automobile exhaust and the serpent of the title was a black rubber tube run from the car's tailpipe into a bedroom via a cracked window. He begins to think that either Miss Hoplinger may in fact be a bit more sinister than she presents herself or that one of the women in the club has a perverse sense of humor and has it in for the mystery novelist.

Murder at the Women's City Club is one of the most difficult books in the Q Patrick canon to locate.  Unlike most of the books published under this pseudonym it was not reprinted in paperback by Popular Library in the United States, nor am I aware of a British paperback edition. It exists as far as I know only in a scarce hardcover from the little known (and short-lived) Philadelphia publisher Roland Swain and in an even more uncommon British edition from Cassell under the title Death in the Dovecot. I was lucky enough to find one amid the ocean of used books in the eBay auctions a while ago and paid only $65, but that was an utter fluke. It should've been priced probably twice that amount. While this book has a few elements to recommend it I wouldn't break my back looking for a copy. The few that are for sale online are in the collector's price range starting at $100 and go up to $650.

9 comments:

  1. Well done on finding this one John, sounds really good. I don't think I even have this one in Italian actually, though I really must check. Been ages since I read one of the non-Wheeler titles by the Patrick/Stagge team. So how is the challenge going? You must be nearly there surely - I barely made my first bingo today - must do better!

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    1. I'm still catching up on blog posts for books I read at the end of June, Sergio! But as for the challenge I have only seven books left. Trouble is trying to find books that will fit the remaining categories. In some cases it's been very difficult. I've been reading lots of new books and I owe reviews on those as well. Very behind... I'm in sort of a lackadaisical summer mood. Might be the odd weather or my choice of books which haven't been too exciting. When I'm done I find it hard to write up something interesting about the book without slamming it altogether.

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    2. Wow, only 7 to go? Well done chum, but yes, I know what you mean about those remaining categories! And just because I had to find out, I'm glad to report that I do have this Q Patrick title, in an Italian edition published as "Delitto al Club Delle Donne" published in July 1983, translated with her usual dedication by AM Francavilla - cover visible here: http://www.sitocomunista.it/rossoegiallo/immagini/quentin/delittoalclub.jpg

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  2. The cover attracts, and then I was captured by the names. Dr Saffron, Millicent Trimmer, and Constance Hoplinger raise smiles, but I wonder about Inspector Boot. Intended ribaldry, don't you think?

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    1. HA! My naturally dirty mind never ever noticed that bawdy (and unintentional I'm sure) pun. That's like those bloomers you have written about. BTW, I found a good one in a book I recently read. I need to send it to you.

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  3. Now this is one I'd really love to find and read! Great review,as ever,John.

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  4. Oh well thank you very much, John, for reviewing a book that sounds good and then telling me that I won't find it unless I want to pay a hundred bucks. Jeez. I must say I love the title COTTAGE SINISTER, since you mention that one too.

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  5. Fantastic review, John! But really--dangle a mystery with an academic bent ("Dr. Diana Saffron, ex-dean of a Women's Medical College and currently Professor of Internal Medicine...") in front of me and then tell me how expensive it will be to get my hands on one? Shame on you! :-) That won't prevent me from putting it on my list and hoping some misguided bookseller doesn't put one in my way for pennies....

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    1. Available through the Norris Lending Library of course, Bev...if you're so tempted. :^D You made my day with all these comments and brought a huge smile to my face. Wonderful to have you back commenting. I've missed you over here!

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