|Cartoon of Harriette Ashbrook|
(orig source & artist unknown)
THE CHARACTERS: Lady in Danger (1942) marks the debut of Susannah Shane's series character Christopher Saxe. Similar to Spike Tracy, another amateur detective the same writer created under her own name, Saxe is yet another independently wealthy man-about-town who discovers he has a knack for solving crimes. We get his entire history of his previous cases, his relationship with the Manhattan police, and the origins of his friendship with his best buddy Buzz Batterson. Saxe is a likeable, astute young man with a strong sense of righting wrongs and unmasking criminals. Batterson is the typical wisecracking comic relief sidekick you find in many of these mystery novels of the period.
Because of the large cast of characters and the high body count we don't get to know many of the cast very well until after their deaths. Mark Priestley, the writer and playwright, is one of the first victims and we catch him at work with his loyal secretary in only one scene. His file of story ideas both published and unpublished along with the manuscript for the new play he is writing became crucial to Saxe's understanding of why the dinner party took place and why the killer is targeting the guests. Seems that Mark has a penchant for basing his stories and plays on real life events and he is not good at disguising the sources.
The lady of the title at first appears to be actress Juliet Brinig whose latest starring vehicle is bringing her attention and accolades in the Broadway community. Her role as a willful septuagenarian who marries late in life is the talk of the town and people are comparing her work to Helen Hayes as Queen Victoria. Juliet is only in her 40s but she is completely convincing as the title character in The Matriarch Marries. A subplot which eventually ties into the main story concerns Juliet's true identity and her mysterious rise seemingly out of nowhere as a leading lady in theater. But there is another woman who just as easily might fit the role of Lady in Danger. She is Miss Tuttle, Priestley's secretary, who Saxe will discover had another role as record keeper for a investment scheme involving all those present at the dinner party on the yacht.
The characters are all well defined, each has a pointed moment in the spotlight, and all of their actions contribute to the solution of the multiple murders. Shane maintains a good level of suspense as each character's many secrets are uncovered further revealing the closely guarded connections that tie them together. Saxe will uncover them all using a combination of street smarts, intuition, and solid detective work. The story is both a crime novel and a literary detective story of sorts as there is a metafiction element involved with Priestley's stories and plays being based on true crimes.
|Lady in Danger (UK ed., 1948)|
Surprises, too, are teeming over the course of this rather intricate and complexly plotted mystery. As much as I thought I knew where Shane was headed with her main plot thread she managed to pull the ultimate unexpected punch when it came to revealing the identity of the murderer. The clues were all there and subtly laid out while the more blatant evidence was discussed and mulled over at length. I'm not sure if this was truly ingenious or just a side effect of having such a complicated plot with so many layers and secrets to keep track of. Still, I was impressed and she wins extra points for fooling me.
Prior to her mystery novelist career Ashbrook was a freelance newspaper writer whose work regularly appeared in The New York Times, New York Tribune and The Brooklyn Daily Eagle throughout the 1920s. She also apparently contributed to the Kiddie Klub Korner as children's advice giver Aunt Jean. This was a column that appeared in the Evening World, another New York paper, also during the 1920s.
Her writing career was cut short when she died in 1947 at the relatively young age of 50. Had she lived longer we might have seen more of Christopher Saxe or even some other series character. For more on Ashbrook see my post on the Spike Tracy detective novels.
EASY TO FIND? Of her six detective novels written as Shane Lady in Danger is the second most common after Lady in Lilac. I found about ten copies for sale in both US and UK editions. Unlike the last few books under her own name none of the Shane books were reprinted in paperback. One of the other titles was included in a 3-in-1 omnibus as part of the Detective Book Club. If you live in the US you might be lucky enough to find one of the Susannah Shane books in your local library or get it through interlibrary loan. I'd like to see all of Ashbrook's books reprinted. While they may not be stellar examples of the genre they are hugely entertaining. When she was cooking up an intricate plot with neatly planted clues as in the case of Lady in Danger she really did a bang up job with her mystery books.
Christopher Saxe Detective novels
Lady in Danger (1942)
Lady in a Wedding Dress (1943)
Lady in a Million (1943)
The Baby in the Ash Can (1944)
Diamonds in the Dumplings (1946)