THE CHARACTERS: N. B. Guardet has modeled himself on a very famous person. Let's see if you can tell who. Guardet lives in a palatial estate called Malmaison furnished almost exclusively with early 19th century French antiques. His two daughters are named Josephine and Marie-Louise. And even his short stature of only five feet three inches matches that of his idol. Got it? Yes, those first two initials stand for Napoleon Bonaparte. Like his namesake Guardet rules his family like a military man. Upon his death his two daughters feel released from his tyranny and openly confess their hatred of him. In fact, nearly everyone from the servants to his business associates admits to similar feelings ranging from tolerable dislike to outright enmity. It's left to Jeremy Gaunt, Josephine's publisher friend who is quickly rediscovering a deep attachment to the elder daughter, and Dr. Knowlton to investigate the accident and prove murder was done.
Knowlton is the coroner in Rowdean, CT but he oddly behaves more like a homicide detective. Since the primary reason for the investigation is tied to the inquest, and finding proof of whether or not the strange accident that befell Guardet is actually a murder, his behavior in the context of this novel seems somewhat justified. Still, with the few policemen taking direct orders from a coroner it's a bit unsettling that Dr. Knowlton has so much clout and is the primary representative of the law here. He's sort of a 1940s era Quincy, M.E.
Among the other suspects are the drop dead gorgeous butler William Fish, who is the object of desire of three of the women; an unctuous overweight lawyer; and Guardet's middle-aged fiancee whose money may have been the primary draw for the impending engagement.
|True crime inspiration for the deadly means|
1st edition (Doubleday Doran, 1937)
Randolph also employs a standard detective novel motif known as the tabulation scene -- basically, the recap which occurs midway through the book. Here it is presented in reverse chronological order and written out, at the suggestion of Dr. Knowlton, as a study of the many coincidences that occurred on the night of Guardet's death. The idea was originally suggested by Gaunt when he talked of the use of too many coincidences in fiction as being "unreal" and that perhaps all of the coincidences they have encountered as sleuths might in fact be part of a deviously engineered plan.
She also employs another of my personal favorites of the many detective novel motifs of the Golden Age which unfortunately must remain unnamed. It's this aspect of the plot that almost qualifies the book for the label of "impossible crime mystery", more than that I cannot say without ruining it all. I will mention for diehard fans that the best practitioners of this motif were two British writers whose best work was in the 1930s: Vernon Loder and Anthony Wynne. Both of these writers, especially the unjustly forgotten and underrated Loder, have been written up in great detail on this blog.
THE BONUS: Like a real good old-fashioned murder mystery there are these very cool floor plans that serve as endpapers. For some reason on the second floor plan where the name Gaunt should appear there is the name Jones! Did Randolph originally name her publishing sleuth Jeremy Jones? Later changing his name to Gaunt just prior to publication? We may never know. In any case it's a pretty egregious error for a top line publisher like Henry Holt.
You can click to enlarge to see both of these plans up close and personal.
"The Women Who Edited Crime Fiction" and in Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature by Linda Lear, which includes intriguing biographical detail on Rodell and her working relationship and friendship with Carson.
As the Henry Holt publicity people have called this book their "find of the season" so will I. Breathe No More is a real detective novel aficionado's mystery. It has it all: a baffling murder with a truly unusual method; cleverly planted clues, not too complex yet not too obvious; all sorts of timetables and alibi breaking business; a pair of sharply defined detectives -- one amateur, one professional; two nicely done love interest subplots that are directly related to the investigation; nifty floor plan endpapers and other illustrations that serve as fair play clues; and a cast of eccentric characters whose dialog and speech also reveals their character. Overall, this debut mystery novel hits all the right notes with resounding music that may have you cheering for more. I know I'll be reading her other books hoping they'll be two more for the Randolph Hit Parade.
Detective Novels by "Marion Randolph"
Breathe No More (1940)
This'll Kill You (1940)
Grim Grow the Lilacs (1941)