I picked the book for it's unusual title and the fact that it got a fairly good write up by Barzun and Taylor in A Catalogue of Crime. I knew only the basic plot taken from this brief blurb inside the Crime Club edition I found: "An anonymous note and $50,000 policy on her life suggested that Celia Donaldson had not died of an abscessed liver, as the medical report indicated. This became a case for Chief Fred C Fellows when the coffin of The Late Mrs. D was exhumed and opened -- and her body wasn't in it." How can you resist that tantalizing hint at a John Dickson Carr style impossible crime? Well, turns out that blurb is a bit misleading. There was a body in the coffin; it just wasn't Celia's. But there's so much more to this well constructed, surprise filled, highly original spin on the well known "suspected wife killer" plot.
From the moment the First Selectmen takes an anonymous letter to Chief Fellows to the legal wizardry displayed in the courtroom climax The Late Mrs. D is one of those rare crime novels that continues to impress and dazzle the reader with unusual characters, unexpected plot developments, and some ingeniously planted clues. On the surface it seems like just another police procedural set in a suburban Connecticut. As the story progresses Waugh reveals some insightful observations about non-urban life in the 1960s. Fellows and his officers work in a small town police station where keeping the peace is largely confined to speeding motorists and teenage vandals. The cops engage in cribbage competitions during the work day to pass the time in the largely crime-free town of Stockford. Then what seems to be a natural death is tainted by murderous suspicions with the arrival of the anonymous letter. And the investigation begins.
The story incorporates the usual ingredients of a police procedural like the bureaucracy involved in running the department and the politics of dealing with a D.A. more interested in his re-election than prosecuting. We get not one but two autopsies, and two inquests due to a bizarre switching of bodies. And the added bonus of a courtroom sequence that rivals anything Erle Stanley Gardner wrote. I suspect Waugh might have been heavily influenced by that famous TV series when he wrote this because the finale had me gasping and laughing in amazement. It seemed as if I suddenly tuned into an episode of Perry Mason with the melodramatic accusations, courtroom trickery and one of the most outrageous courtroom confessions in print.
The characters are insightfully realized portraits of small town Connecticut. They certainly ring true to me as I grew up in a Connecticut town very much like Stockford (we even had a First Selectmen instead of a mayor). The charming Dr. Donaldson who has only female patients can do no wrong. He reminds me of an American version of Dr. Dysert in Joan Fleming's The Deeds of Dr. Deadcert reviewed here last month. There is his mousy maid Kathleen Dunkirk whose closely guarded secret will eventually explode the case; Kathleen's smarmy philandering salesman husband; Miss Barnes, a prim and proper nurse as equally devoted to Dr. Donaldson as she is to her profession. Then there is David Johns, Celia's brother. He and his parents opposed Celia's marriage to the doctor. He has little good to say about the doctor accusing him of being both an abortionist and a wife killer. Donaldson has been married three times in five years, each of his wives dying shortly after he married them.
Though Fellows doesn't care for the acrimonious tone David Johns uses in making his case it's hard for him to ignore what seems obvious. When the evidence is sorted out the police, D.A. and coroner relent and end up agreeing with Johns. Donaldson is arrested and put on trial. His wily defense attorney has a few tricks up his sleeve and it seems as if the doctor may be acquitted. Chief Fellows is troubled, however, by some inconsistencies in the case. One simple sentence uttered on the witness stand gives him the final piece of evidence he needs to unmask the real murderer of Celia Donaldson. And when it comes there is quite a fireworks display.
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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age card, space I6 - "Book with woman in title"