I wasn't expecting this to be as good as it turned out. After all, Amelia Reynolds Long has a reputation for being one of the many authors consigned to that dubious hall of fame known as "Alternative Mystery Writers." I've written about one of her loonier books (The Leprechaun Murders) and have read five others. All of them show a talent for bizarre plotting told in an unfortunate writing style dominated by improper word choices, poor grammar, surreal metaphors and lapses in logic. Much to my surprise Death Looks Down is not only almost completely free of those writing faults the plot, although very weird, all works out rather well. That this book was published by Ziff-Davis, a publisher with a smart editorial staff, might have something to do with the final product. Her previous publishing house, Phoenix Press, was not known for editing at all let alone publishing writers who had a command of English or the use of logic in creating plots. Death Looks Down also succeeds because Long focuses on her two areas of expertise: literature and academia.
Katherine "Peter" Piper, Long's mystery writer/sleuth, has decided to pursue a master's degree and has enrolled in University of Philadelphia's English literature graduate program. Along with six others she is currently taking a seminar on the works of Poe. Discovery of a manuscript of Poe's morbid elegy "Ulalume" in his own handwriting and its subsequent theft and later disappearance sets off a wild tale of greed, collecting mania, and murder.
The characters are completely involved in the multiple crimes and trying to prevent anyone else from dying at the hands of a mad murderer who finds inspiration for his killing spree in the pages of Poe's grotesque tales. Though published in 1944 we get no inkling of the time period other than it is definitely not modern. Reynolds has an ultra-conservative worldview and finds it necessary to express this through her characters. The only aspect of the book that resembles anything remotely 40ish is that everyone is obsessed with social niceties and etiquette. From coarse Sgt. Boone, an average guy cop whose speech is riddled with slang, to the prim and proper Miss Kutz who dresses and talks like a little girl, every character is always making some aside about proper behavior. It's as if each character is channeling Miss Manners.
Sgt. Boone to a suspect: "Do you generally walk into people's rooms when they ain't home, Mr. Phillips?"
Ginnie Pat in the college dining hall to her two table mates: "May I be excused?" [Seriously? Graduate students? In a dining hall? Help me.]
He paused to reach for his pipe; then, remembering that he was in the library where smoking was forbidden, he regretfully put it back again.
The last sentence shows you how Long has tendency to overstate the obvious. But she just needed to remind us that everyone was sitting in the library where, for Long, etiquette is paramount. I'll spare you all the stuff in the beginning of the novel when the first victim is discovered in the stacks and how incongruous a murder investigation can be in a library "where there are rules." Maybe it was meant to be amusing, but it comes off as schoolmarmish.
|Arthur Rackham's illustration for "Metzengerstein"|
from the rare George Harrap & Co 1935 limited edition
One thing I wish she hadn't done was to divide the book in sections with each named after a Poe tale. This spoils what could have been several gory surprises when the victims were discovered. Instead, as the reader approaches each new section he already knows what to expect, especially since three of the five sections are inspired by very well known Poe stories.
THINGS I LEARNED: There was a lot about the publication history of Poe's writing, his work as a editor at two magazines, and a passing reference to Griswold. And that last bit I had to look up.
|Rufus Wilmot Griswold (1815-1857)|
The real detective of Death Looks Down, the character who presents the final and true solution, is Edward Trelawney, an investigator for the Philadelphia DA's office who is of Irish descent. He speaks Gaelic and tends to launch into his native tongue when he's angry. There is one instance when an Irish word appears in the story. I'd never heard or read it: spalpeen - Irish slang for a rascal.
This is my first review for a book published in 1944 for Rich Westwood's Crime of the Century meme for July. I'll have two more to entice you before this month is over.