Friday, November 3, 2017
FFB: To Catch a Thief - Daphne Sanders
"But, John," (I hear you cry while scratching your head) "I've never heard of Daphne Sanders!"
That's because it's a pseudonym, silly Reader. But I bet you know her under her other more recognizable pen name -- Craig Rice. That ol' trickster Georgiana loved to make up alter egos when writing her books. Usually including private jokes like using the name of one of her fictional murder victims when she adopted the pseudonym of "Michael Venning" for three murder mysteries featuring private detective Melville Fairr.
The book? Well, it's one of her more mature efforts not an alcohol drenched, comic romp like those featuring her series characters John J. Malone, Jake and Helene Justus. This is a somber tale indeed about faked identities, vengeance and post-war American economics. It's rather a timely tale in this day of sociopathic corporate greed, vigilante justice and utter lawlessness.
Our anti-hero is "The Man with Two Faces" who leaves behind quasi anonymous notes signing himself N. N (as I prefer to call him though Rice lays it on heavy with his other multi-word nickname) has been ruined in a stock market manipulation scheme and he sets out to wreck havoc and get his revenge in a Robin Hood style redistribution of wealth. We know from the outset the identity of the thief who is robbing the businessmen of their valuable antique jewelry and Old Masters paintings. But when the men behind the stock market start turning up as corpses along with their wives it looks as if another vengeance seeker is on the prowl with a more deadly aim in mind.
A private detective named Donovan is on the case hired by Lucius Abernathy, one of the stock market crooks who received a note from N. Abernathy fears for his life ever since Renzo Hymers turned up dead a few days after the theft of Hymers' prized emeralds. In addition to protecting himself Abernathy has his own treasure to safeguard -- the "Starflower necklace". Donovan soon uncovers a trail of bodies -- first Hymers' widow, then her lover a professional dancer and gigolo whose legs have been smashed in a particularly gruesome style of murder. Are the thefts and murders related? Is there a deadlier game that N is playing. Could there possibly be two revenge seekers? Our thief known as N knows he is not the killer and he turns detective as well in order to clear his name.
So we have two plots unfolding simultaneously in this well thought out, intricately constructed blend of inverted detective novel, murder mystery and caper novel. Donovan is on the trail of thieving N who he is sure is also the mad killer while N doggedly pursues leads and clues to uncover the real killer. Rice has some intriguing things to say about identity in this book which should come as no surprise to readers who know that her own identity was a hodgepodge of fiction and reality.
Later in the book one of the killer's many victims is discovered by Donovan: "...the dead girl's love for bright colors showed everywhere in the room. ...the bathrobe on the bed was a gaudy flame, patterned with black and the bathrobe cord around the colorless throat seemed to be one vivid slender flame. Poor little night blooming flower, Donovan thought. Not one of the moths that hover too close, but one of the flames themselves. Only the flame had been blown out now."
I was genuinely impressed with To Catch a Thief. It shows a thoroughly new side to Craig Rice's writing and gives us an insight into her darker more serious worldview, a philosophy I think perhaps reflects her true nature rather than the frothy worldview we get in her comic crime novels. This is definitely a book worth reading and seeking out. While the hardcover first edition is now a rarity and extremely difficult to find, there tend to be some US paperback reprints (Handi-Book #26, 1944) that show up now and again in the used book market. You might also find it in the 3-in-1 Detective Book Club reprint which includes the Perry Mason novel The Case of the Buried Clock and Headlong for Murder by Merlda Mace. To Catch A Thief is one book hunt worth your time and effort.