Friday, July 29, 2016

FFB: All for the Love of a Lady - Leslie Ford

THE STORY: More murder and mayhem among the rich and wealthy in Washington, DC occurs in All for the Love of a Lady (1944). This time Grace and Colonel Primrose encounter the bizarre poisoning death of a chauffeur and the later strangling of his employer. Are they connected? Was the chauffeur an accidental victim and was D.J. Durbin -- irascible, ailurophobic, war profiteer -- the intended target? The poison method in the first murder and the strangling in the second set Colonel Primrose to thinking that they may be two culprits in the case and perhaps one more murder to follow.

THE CHARACTERS: This is my first encounter with both Grace and Primrose. They have a long history together and though Grace alludes to the rumors of a burgeoning romance and the whispers of "Why aren't they married yet?" I don't get much of a sense of anything other than fondness for one another. Although this is the 12th book in the series Primrose still doesn't call her by her first name, instead insisting on the more formal Mrs. Latham anytime he addresses her. Nevertheless as a duo they are a lot more interesting to me than many of the married sleuthing couples created by Ford's mostly American contemporaries. Grace and Primrose have an edge to their relationship and rarely does it descend to the witty banter, frothy kind of fake love relationship you get in the married detectives books. Primrose is involved in intelligence with either the War department, the FBI, the Justice department or some other secret unnamed adjunct office at the Pentagon. Grace is never really sure and Primrose doesn't talk much about his work. As a detective team they have the typical mix of male/female differences in thinking and are often at odds with one another. In one important sequence Grace allows one of the suspects to destroy evidence and never lets Primrose know until it's too late. He is justifiably very angry with her.

There is a relatively large cast of characters in this outing. The women always tend to stand out in Ford's books, but the mostly male cast in this book is a strong group of distinct personalities each with their own way of speaking and interacting. I'll make mention of Durbin's wife (the person who destroys evidence) and Corinne Blodgett (the wife of an officious lawyer) as the stand outs among the women. Courtney Durbin is much younger than her husband but has been in love with a man her own age for years. She, the younger man, and his wife are the subjects of a volatile lover's triangle. It may be that Courtney is the lady of the title for whom someone committed murder in order to free her from the prison of an unhappy marriage. Corinne is a comic character but one with an important role in providing clues to the final solution. She has some brilliantly realized farcical scenes. Ford's books have some very cinematic moments and I'm surprised none of her books were ever made into movies in the 1940s.

Among the noteworthy men there is Duleep Singh, a self-confessed charlatan of a psychic who has been advising several of the characters on everything from their love lives to their finances. There is another brilliant scene between Singh and Grace which shows some of Ford's penetrating insights into how easy it is to observe people and know them better than they know themselves. It was probably my favorite section in this very smart, excellently plotted detective novel.

ATMOSPHERE: The war looms large over the story. Durbin and his cronies have been spending time traveling to all corners of the world trying to find new sources for rubber and other natural products for their profiteering businesses. Now that Burma has been invaded by the Japanese they have lost access to their primary source.

Colonel Primrose is wily enough to know the effect of referring to men by their military rank in order to get the proper responses in his interrogation. He addresses Randy Fleming as Lieutenant and expects him to respond like an officer rather than a civilian and to behave honorably as well as truthfully. Grace spots this strategic interviewing tactic and Ford has her explain it to us in case we miss it. And I would have missed it for its sheer subtlety had she not pointed it out. I thought that was a very clever bit of WW2 type behavior that most modern writers would never think of.

Meanwhile on the homefront more mundane facets of the war crop up in everyday behaviors. The comic scene I mentioned with Corinne Blodgett involves her chasing after a red coupon when it flies out of her ration book just as a bus is pulling up to a stop. The driver is forced to stop short to avoid hitting Corrine who has run out into traffic chasing after the precious coupon. We learn that Lilac, Grace's housekeeper, has never once touched her ration coupon book for fear of being thrown in jail for misuse. Grace needs to explain to her that tearing the coupon out is part of its intended purpose, but Lilac won't touch them.

On page 83 is a passing remark showing how the war is always on everyone's minds: "The light in the back room was on, but she didn't answer the bell. I was worried, because I knew she wouldn't go away and leave a light on, in case of a blackout."

QUOTES:   She stopped abruptly half inside the door. It was not unlike the Queen Mary deciding to reverse engines in the middle of the Potomac Basin.

He looked very much as if he were supporting the whole [doorway]...Atlas in a banker's gray business suit, though I don't remember in any of the accounts I read of Atlas's pausing to spit, as Sergeant Buck did then into the tangled grass beside the rotten steps.

I don't really believe in the buzzard's shadow, though my kids half do because Lilac taught them to when they were babies, and fear has a substratal contagion you can laugh at if you keep you fingers crossed and knock on wood.

She was swathed in one of those indefinite things...a lot of misty blue-rose-gray chiffon that made her look rather like an ambulatory cloud with a solid center.

People's lives may be open books, but there's no use for those who can read them to go around doing it aloud.

It's invariably the obvious things you never give a thought to that rise up and smite you. It's like taking elaborate precautions against cracking up in a helicopter and breaking your neck because you forgot there was ice on the front steps.

Duleep Singh: "If telling her that [she is pure of heart], when she needs confidence in herself and in her own standards, is the trick of a charlatan, then I am a base one indeed."

THINGS I LEARNED: There is a lot of talk about superstitions especially those related to black cats. We learn that Durbin is deathly afraid of cats and someone uses the word ailurophobia in discussing his abnormal fear. He also uses the word galeanthropy. Never heard the word or ever seen it. According to the character galeanthropy is similar to lycanthropy except that it is a cat rather than a wolf that the person is afraid he is transforming into. Sure enough Merriam-Webster confirms his definition. I thought for sure this was a neologism of Ford's creation.

p. 160: "He's a great wag, Inspector. Always full of practical jokes, like putting breakfast food into your bed on the plane." WHAT? There were beds on passenger planes in 1944? Yes, indeed! In the mid 1940s through the late 1950s some jumbo jets had berths similar to those on trains for sleeping passengers. Not surprisingly the cost of a ticket for this type of air travel was extremely expensive. The Boeing Stratocruiser (shown above), for instance, could "carry up to 100 passengers on the main deck plus 14 in the lower deck lounge; typical seating was for 63 or 84 passengers or 28 berthed and five seated passengers". For a personal anecdote read "When Airplanes Had Beds" on the Smithsonian magazine website.

EASY TO FIND: The answer is yes, but not in a modern edition. I'll not discuss the insulting lack of reprints of Leslie Ford's books again. There's a very stupid reason for it and it angers me to no end. You'll have to resort to the used book market and you should have no difficulty finding a copy. There are a variety of paperback and hardcovers out there to choose from and many copies for sale. When people claim that Ford's books are hard to find I'm puzzled. Her books are very easy to find if you're willing to buy them used. You're reading this on the internet now. Why not do a simple search? Use this website -- vialibri.net -- and you'll find a huge selection. They're out they waiting to be purchased. You'll make a used bookseller very happy, too.

2 comments:

  1. I want to read this, John. Glad I found a paperback copy available for five bucks over at Amazon. Will hunt around for something with free shipping, but we'll see. This sounds like just the sort of book I've been hankering for. I mean, I'm reading other more serious stuff as we speak, but you can't beat good vintage reading when the world is in tumult. Thanks, John.

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    1. I have a feeling that this series is right up your alley, Yvette. After reading THE WOMAN IN BLACK I made sure that Leslie Ford was the mystery writer I looked for first before anyone else. As luck would have it every time I went to a book sale or a used book store some of the most scarce titles turned up. My eyes lit up when I uncovered a first edition of THREE BRIGHT PEBBLES (an extremely scarce title in hardcover) at the Printer's Row LitFest back in June. I paid only two bucks for that book!

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