THE STORY: As if the plague of anonymous notes being sent to the young women at Kilcomoden hostel were not enough now a dead body turns up in the garden -- the body of a strange man no one has ever laid eyes on before. Mary Allen had the unfortunate meeting with the corpse. Now she and Mother Mary St. Paul of the Cross, the rectress who oversees the running of the hostel, are teamed up with Detective Inspector Stephen O'Mara and Sergeant Wheeler of the Melbourne police plus a mysterious American who goes only by the name Joe in order to find out who the man is and why he was killed outside the women's boarding house. Is it all tied to the nasty poison pen notes? Or could it be related to a burglary that occurred at the hostel several months ago.
CHARACTERS: Reservation for Murder (1958) is Australian writer June Wright's fourth mystery novel but the first to feature her second series detective Mother Paul (let's stick with the shortened form of her name that she much prefers). In this first outing the elderly nun comes across as a mix of Father Brown and Miss Marple. She has the enigmatic speech patterns so often found in the parable laden tales of Chesterton's priest detective, but she is also a manipulative snoop in the manner of Christie's spinster sleuth. Much of her "detecting" is done by inference and instinctive understanding of human nature. She tends to have an eerie skill at getting others to do her bidding with her kind soft voice, subtle ambiguous suggestions, and implied directives. Unfortunately, she is doing much of the real detective work offstage with the police and leaving Mary to grapple with the shady verbal instructions on her own. And in the end there is a lot of non-fair play narrative that the reader is not privy to until the finale. There are a handful of clues to help guide the reader to the correct solution of the killer's identity, the author of the poison pen letters, and the person responsible for some other dreadful deaths, but in the end the we get an arbitrary resolution of the plot with a silly melodramatic boat chase involving a Napoleon of Crime that just comes out of nowhere.
Still the book is truly engaging. Reservation for Murder is one of the many domestic suspense novels with a mostly female cast that were being written in the US, UK and Australia during the 1950s. The emphasis in this story is on the relationships between the many women in the hostel, their petty jealousies, their closely guarded secrets, the friendships and "frenemy" types who show up in the nearly claustrophobic atmosphere of the all female boarding house. The novels and themes of Patricia Carlon, another underrated Australian crime writer, came to mind as I was getting near the end of this one. Wright is definitely more comfortable writing of female maliciousness as is evidenced in the other books that were reprinted by Verse Chorus Press a few years ago and are easily available to the reading public. The cast of characters is truly what makes this a mystery novel worth seeking out.
We have quite a well drawn cast of women here. Mary has two close friends who were my favorites of the bunch: Fenella King and Clare. Fenella is an Eve Arden type, all wise cracks and common sense, while Clare is the "mannish" athlete who adopts an odd Bertie Wooster style of speech peppering her sentences with "eh whats" and "old girls". They're the most fully developed of what often seems a shallow bunch of women. There is a nasty gossip named Verna, truly a sinister young woman and prime candidate as the author of the poison pen notes; two superficial interchangeable blondes called Betty and Jean chittering on mindlessly and obsessed with make up and clothes; mousy Alison Cunningham nearly always feeling sorry for herself; and mysterious new boarder Christine Farrow, slightly older than most of the 20-something women and a moody artiste with a snappish tongue and a dark secret she's not about to reveal to anyone until it's almost too late. They're all very intriguing characters, but can appear a bit like archetypes or even caricatures at times.
The most caricatured of the cast is the Gorgon widow Mrs. Carron-Doyle, a thoroughly unpleasant over-the-hill bully who badgers her female companion Mabel Jones into submission and treats all the young women like servants when poor ol' Jonesy is not to be found. I was hoping she'd end up a victim of the stealthy murderer. No such luck. However, as a sort of consolation prize to the reader she does get her comeuppance at the climactic fancy dress ball towards the end of the book.
The policemen characters are well done too. Sgt. Wheeler is a typical comic cop and appears in only few scenes until the arrival of his superior. For some reason Wright chooses to treat O'Mara, like Mother Paul. He too has a nearly sinister manner of getting others to do his bidding and he enlists Mary's help as a sort of undercover agent who will observe all the women and report back to him any unusual behaviors or incidents at Kilcomoden. The first meeting they have at a Chinese restaurant is both amusing for Mary's introduction to Asian cuisine and fascinating for O'Mara's masterful method of steering Mary away from her distaste at being a spy to seeing how helpful she can be not only to the police but her fellow boarders.
INNOVATIONS: Wright employs the traditional mystery novelist's gimmick of the dying clue in this book. The man stabbed to death in the garden manages to whisper what sounds like "Jess" to Mary just before he dies. Much of the first half of the book consists of Mary's clever ways to get the women to reveal their middle names, talk about their female relatives, and other methods of trying to uncover who this Jess might be. The answer to that mystery is revealed in the final pages and turns out to be of the most original and devious dying message tricks I've come across in quite a while. Not quite on par with Ellery Queen and probably the kind of clever clue that only a woman writer could dream up.
In fact the book is quite a celebration of all things female. I usually tire of books where women's wardrobes are discussed in great detail. But clothes play a very big part in the book. A favorite dress serves as major clue to prove that an apparent suicide was actually murder. One of the women works at a dress designer's fancy salon and the climax of the book is a dance where all the women spend a lot of time getting dolled up. One of the women is such a overdressed disaster that Betty and Jean, the two glamour girls, insist on giving her a makeover almost against her will. They tie her to a chair, pretty up her face and nails, and leave her in a bathroom while her hair sets. But... Something quite horrible happens to that young woman that was the biggest shock in the book.
THINGS I LEARNED: The book takes place in Melbourne and the setting itself was an eye opener. I'd never heard of a hostel managed by an order of nuns that is in essence a profit making boarding house. While it's never mentioned if the money the women pay to the hostel is then used for charity I'm guessing it is. Not only were there several real hostels run by nuns in Australia there are others throughout Europe and the North America. Some I learned only accept Catholics as guests. Now how do you prove that?
EASY TO FIND? Take a wild guess. That's right. Ridiculously scarce. Amazingly I own two copies and I found both of them online within days of one another, including one with the gorgeous DJ shown at the top of this post. Sheer luck, gang. I can see why this book was not one of the June Wright mysteries that was reprinted. It most likely has limited appeal to a primary female audience, though I readily admit I was truly captivated by the characters and was not entirely put off by its feminine outlook and emphasis on clothes, make-up and bitchy catfighting. If you live in Australia chances are you can find a copy in a local library, especially in the Melbourne area where Wright lived. But it looks to me to be very difficult to find this book anywhere else in the world. If you do come across a copy, I'd say it's worth it for the characters, the two shocking deaths that occur after the stabbing of the mystery man and as a good example of a nun detective in the early history of the genre before nun detectives became tiresome clichés.