Friday, May 27, 2016
FFB: Said with Flowers - Anne Nash
ATMOSPHERE: Said with Flowers (1943) was one of the many "specialty mysteries" that were cropping up in the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s. Perhaps already the savvy editors at Doubleday Doran's esteemed Crime Club imprint who published Nash's book had recognized that murder mysteries set in florists, libraries, department stores and other unusual locales with women amateur sleuths terrorized by stalking murderers were just the gimmick to sell more books to insatiable readers craving new spins on the detective novel.
This was Anne Nash's first book. From the very first paragraph it is clear Nash is emulating the Mignon Eberhart school. As narrated by Doris, who prefers to go by the nickname Dodo, the story is littered with lines like this: "And it was I--unknowingly, innocently, but it was I nevertheless--who helped the murderer commit the crime." And throughout the novel Dodo wavers between trusting Barney as a good worker then disbelieving his presence is anything but sinister and a curse. Barney is made to be the obvious villain of the piece, but anyone who has read these kinds of books just knows that all his mysterious behavior will prove not to be villainous but purposeful, albeit for ulterior motives that are not fully revealed until the closing chapters. There is a burgeoning forbidden romance as well and the reader is meant to be rooting for the lovers to survive all the violence and terror, come out alive and well and headed for the wedding aisle.
The story is overly complicated by the subplot of the serial killer who inexplicably leaves drawings of fish on his victims. The search for this criminal, dubbed "The Karp Killer" by some cynical reporters, is almost completely unnecessary. There's never really any threat to anyone and the character exists only so that Barney can be suspected of being a charming psychopath on the lam. Despite an attempt to obfuscate and confuse the reader with weak red herrings it is clear that the murder of Rosalind Vance is merely a copycat killing because the crime doesn't fit the killer's M.O. Even though a fish drawing is pinned to her corpse she's too old, she was stabbed, and her body is found buried in a trash pile -- details that do not fit any of the circumstances of the previous nine victims' deaths. While all of this seems to be very modern for the 1940s remember that multiple murderer tales had been written by the scores throughout the 1930s, most of them by British writers, some even include the gimmick of copycat killing.
INNOVATIONS: There aren't many to be found here. The story is overloaded with plot devices pulled from the Victorian sensation novel trunk. There are many secrets in the characters' past including the old motif of a child born out of wedlock that shamed the family. Continuing in this vein Dodo has an unnaturally prudish reaction to Barney's penchant for heavy duty swearing. There are four separate references to one incident of Barney swearing up a storm of curse words and foul language that make him seem like the Devil incarnate. She talks about his speech being indicative of pure evil. It's all a bit laughable to most modern readers accustomed to salty and vulgar language.
I will mention an unusual use of a trained dog to literally sniff out clues. The minor policeman character Mark Tudor has a dog named Svea that helps find evidence. The dog comes in very handy at a climactic point late in the story.
Another notable aspect is the rare way with which Nash deals with grieving. Probably because the novel combines the backdrop of a florist's business with the irony of a murder taking place at Christmas time Nash takes advantage of the way people express their emotions through the purchase of flowers. The title of the book becomes a multi-layered metaphor. Grief is openly discussed in a way that made me notice how often that expression of emotion is so rarely brought up in detective novels of this era. When I came across this comment late in the novel I felt that my observation was even more justified: "What can we gain by learning anything more? [...] What good will it do to find out who killed Rosalind? It won't lessen our grief any." For her observations on the futility of crime solving in the face of inexplicable violence I give Nash several bonus points that more than make up for the shortcomings of her debut novel.
EASY TO FIND? Act now before midnight, as they say on TV infomercials. Said with Flowers was published in hardcover by the Crime Club in the US and Hammond in the UK. There is also a US paperback reprint by Bart House. All three editions pop up for sale every now and then with the paperback the easiest to find. Currently there are a handful of the Bart paperback copies being offered for sale online. As for the other mysteries by Nash your chances are much bleaker. I found very few copies of the third and fourth titles for sale and absolutely none of the second title Death by Design.
Ann Nash's Detective Novels
Said with Flowers (1943)
Death by Design (1944)
Cabbages and Crime (1945)
Unhappy Rendezvous (1946)