Friday, November 14, 2014

FFB: Murder by the Day - Veronica Parker Johns

In the opening chapter of Murder by the Day (1953) we learn that Mortimer Rutherford, a millionaire with a morbid fear of dying in an inferno, has completely fireproofed his penthouse. How then was he found incinerated in his newly purchased designer armchair? A chair, that like the rest of his home, was most recently treated with a new fireproofing compound he helped develop with a chemist friend. Furthermore, Rutherford's interior designer, Althea Tamblyn (one of the more colorful characters in the book), had also purchased several of those chairs for other tenants in the building. Mysteriously, the chairs keep turning up in the oddest of places. Murder by the Day might well be subtitled The Case of the Flip-Flopped Furniture along the lines of an alliterative Perry Mason title. It's well suited for the Mason series for just like Gardner's obsession with switching guns and bullets in the Mason books Johns has her characters switching and moving those chairs around the Rutherford House apartment complex with the rapidity and deftness of a con man running a shell game.

Mercury Mystery digest paperback (1954)
But it isn't just the bizarre murder method that makes Murder by the Day worth your while. Webster Flagg, ex-performer whose talents on the stage took him from the vaudeville circuit to Shakespearean repertory, is the Rutherford's butler and housekeeper who also is employed by several other residents at Rutherford House. Flagg is the amateur sleuth of our piece, the only actor turned butler turned detective I know of in the genre. Oh, but he's also one of the earliest African American amateur detectives in the genre, too.

Beating out both Ed Lacy's private eye Toussaint Moore who first appeared in 1958 and Chester Himes' policemen who debuted in 1957 Webster Flagg is perhaps the first of the modern amateur black detectives. But unlike Lacy's and Himes' creations you'll find no tough guy demeanor here. Flagg (two G's, please, if you don't want to unduly upset him) is a sixtyish gentleman in every sense of the word, restraining himself with the suavity of Jeeves, reining in his temper and never resorting to harsh words when he's taunted by his mercurial clients. Drawing upon his acting talents and his clever insights into his client's personalities based solely on how messy or tidy they lead their lives he makes for a formidable detective. Johns' characterization of a black servant in a very rich and very white environment makes for some enlightening reading. She makes her point especially in a flashback when Webster has to deal with one of his employer's frequent fits of rage and his repeated use of the "N word". Johns' handling of the scene shows only one of the many reasons that Webster is one of the most dignified and sophisticated of black detectives in the history of crime fiction.

Servant's Problem (1958) 1st US edition
The second and last Webster Flagg mystery
This is a detective novel with all the goods on display. Johns' has a lively writing style with a talent for turning a phrase and incorporating clever wordplay. Sometimes a bit self-consciously clever ("...slip covering herself in a kennel of blue poodles flaunting magenta ribbons") or awkward ("Her second Gibson laced her stays."), nonetheless, her writing is always vibrant and alive, never dull. At times tongue in cheek, but never silly; deadpan serious, but never preachy, as when dealing with the subtle and insidious racism that shows its ugly face at key moments. Her women characters are more colorful than the men ranging from the harried Priscilla Taylor, neglected wife who discovers the body, to the smug and haughty decorator Althea Tamblyn to the dumb blond hick Margie Peters whose naïve country ways are typical of the kind of comic character you get in a crime novel set in urbane Manhattan. Even the temperamental Black Angus, Rutherford's pet cat, gets to shine and provides more than a few clues to the solution of the murder. But this is no cat mystery. Angus has a few scenes of importance and never takes center stage, thank heaven.

Let me not overlook the essential ingredients of any good mystery novel -- the detective work and laying out of clues. There is an abundance of both. A stolen house key, the cat in the dumbwaiter incident, Rutherford's collection of valuable Impressionist and abstract paintings, an ingeniously painted copy of a Cezanne, reading glasses found in a recipe file, and the game of musical chairs in which the furniture moves around in dizzying circles rather than the people are among the numerous puzzling events and clues Webster will deal with as he sorts out fact from fiction in this literal case of in flagrante delicto.

Hush, Gabriel! (1941)  Atlas paperback edition
Johns' first mystery novel featuring Agatha Welch
Not much is known about Veronica Parker Johns other than her writing career. In addition to only five detective novels -- two with a spinster detective named Agatha Welch, one stand-alone mystery, and two with Webster Flagg -- she wrote a non-fiction work about her unusual hobby of collecting sea shells titled aptly enough She Sells Sea Shells. A number of her short stories appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and she is perhaps best known for her story "A Gentleman Caller" which was adapted for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour starring Roddy McDowall in the tile role. A review of the second and last Webster Flagg mystery Servant's Problem will be appearing here soon. Stay tuned.

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Reading Challenge Update: Golden Age Vintage Mystery Bingo -- space E2, "Book with a time, day, month, etc. in the title". Another Bingo line! And only four more books left to fill the card.

13 comments:

  1. Does sound quite interesting. That second cover looks like it could go on a Nancy Drew mystery. Some clever phrasing you quote, and I may have to see if one of these - this particular one, hopefully, can be found.

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    1. That's an odd illustration on the Mercury digest. You have to look close to see the ominous figure holding a razor in the mirror behind her to figure out what the illustration is meant to convey. For once it's a lurid cover of a scene that actually takes place in the book.

      Last time I checked (just this morning in fact) there were four copies of the Doubleday edition, and one was only $4.20. The Mercury digest should be out there, too but I'm guessing you'll not find one for less then $10 -15 as the collectible paperback market is once again starting to increase in pricing.

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  2. Thanks for the intro to another as yet unheard of by me, author, John. :) I, too, will be looking for a reading copy. I like the sound of this very much. LOVE the SERVANT'S PROBLEM cover and looking forward to your review.

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  3. This sounds wonderful, John. Another to look for--I love the actor-turned butler-turned detective idea!

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    1. Webster Flagg is a breath of fresh air. The way he sees things is so unusual yet so believable. Wish there were more books with him. Guess they didn't sell well for Doubleday or Johns. Servant's Problem, the sequel to the book reviewed here, was not only her last mystery -- it was her last novel.

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    2. I remember you reviewing that one, John. I'm quite sure I added it to my list then too. There are just too many good books to hunt for and not enough time. Not enough time to read them all, either.

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  4. Thanks for bringing this author to our attention! I'm off to see if that $4.20 copy is still available.

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  5. This looks splendid! Many thanks for an excellent review. And now the tricky bit: finding a copy!

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  6. Through pure serendipity I purchased the Collier edition of SERVANT'S PROBLEM just a couple of weeks ago due to the blurb from Anthony Boucher. Now, due to your review it's going to the top of Mount TBR

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  7. Sounds very good and Webster Flagg sounds especially interesting. Since I already bought a copy of last Friday's book you reviewed, I should probably hold off on this one, but I will be looking around for a nice, not too expensive copy.

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  8. Really looking forward to hearing what the second one is like - really want to get this one (but I always say that after one of your reviews ... I'm not complaining, though my wallet might).

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  9. John, this is pure vintage fiction for me. Thanks for reviewing "Murder by the Day" and bringing the author's other books to my notice.

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  10. Yet another truly fascinating review, and an author, book and detective I'd never heard of.

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