Thursday, January 31, 2019

FFB: Journey Downstairs - R. Philmore

THE STORY: Sir Geoffrey Howarth, M.P., is holding a dinner part at his estate called Kemble. Among the guests are schoolmaster Richard Philmore, his dear friend the writer and publicist Swan, Rev. John Cornish and his wife Joyce, and Ralph Sedgwick, an architect hoping to get some help from Howarth in obtaining a commission to design and build a new student housing facility at the local university. They are soon joined by Peter Howarth, Sir Geoffrey's profligate nephew known for his spendthrift habits and penchant for gambling. Shortly after dinner Sir Geoffrey is found stabbed in his study. Swan does some preliminary investigations and based only on two bits of evidence is certain he knows the identity of the killer, but he needs to get proof to satisfy the police. And so with permission of Chief Constable Greening he sets out to do so. Dick Philmore acts as his Watson as they uncover a lurid trail of blackmail, adultery, prostitution and illegal stock speculation.

THE CHARACTERS:  Swan (whose first name is never mentioned once in his debut appearance) belongs to a long line of academics who turn to amateur sleuthing as an intellectual kick. He proposes that Philmore turn secretary and record their investigations. Luckily, Philmore has a skill in shorthand making it all the more easy to get down the minutest details. Readers may notice that Philmore, like S. S. Van Dine and Anthony Abbot among other less notable Golden Age detective fiction writers, is also the author of the book signalling that it is a pseudonym which, obviously, it is. As a Watson Philmore proves to be more than helpful when it comes to interviewing women in the case. He has a charm and affability about him that the distant and intellectual Swan lacks. Also Philmore confesses to us in his narrative that he has fallen a bit in love with Joyce Cornish which makes his interactions with her a mix of anticipatory gladness and discomfort knowing he needs to treat her as a suspect. Joyce is too smart not to notice this. In fact she is very much aware of her allure and uses it to her advantage as often as she can.

Most of the men find Joyce's attractions difficult to ignore. She has openly talked of the lack of passion in her marriage, lets both Swan and Philmore know that she and her husband have separate bedrooms at Kemble and by inference we know that is true of their own home. It is a happy but loveless (translation: sexless) marriage and Joyce finds herself straying.  Frequently. Who among the male guests at the dinner party have succumbed to her slyly implied open invitations to join her after hours? Swan thinks he knows who; more than one man is guilty. But like a typical omniscient detective of this genre he's keeping mum. Swan's favorite and most irritating catchphrase is: "I don't think I'll tell you that right now, Dick." Infuriating both his assistant and the reader every single time.

As is the case with large casts -- and this one is hefty -- I find myself drawn to the quirky and eccentric characters. Some of these people show up only in one scene and yet their appearance is jarring or touching or humorous enough to merit mention. And so I pick the following three supporting players.

Mrs. Hannon, an elderly woman of less than modest means, finds it necessary to rent a spare room in her house to prostitutes. Basically Mrs. Hannon is running a no-tell-motel in her own home. She has a pleading speech poignantly rendered and I imagine delivered with much emotion (though Philmore doesn't let us know that) that fully justifies her need for the money and simultaneously explaining how her renting is an act of compassion despite looking like selfish greed to others.

Her primary renter is Lily Chambers, not so much a hooker with a heart of gold, as she is a woman of desperate circumstances. She finds her trade reprehensible yet necessary. When she is accused of having a sexual relationship with Rev. Cornish with whom she is known to take back to Mrs. Hannon's on more than one occasion her outrage knows no bounds. She insists that the reverend is her friend and confidante, that there is nothing sexual. She says she never once charged him a shilling for his visits. But is her anger feigned or genuine?  We are never sure until the final pages.

Rounding out this trio is Archie Twite, a weasely pimp, who we discover was an agent working for Geoffrey Howarth. It seems that Howarth owned several buildings some of which were brothels and hotels frequented by prostitutes. Twite says his main source of income was helping to drum up business in these houses of ill repute. But of the these three involved in the world's oldest profession Twite will turn out to be the most surprising his insights and his aspirations to leave the sordid life he despises. He's one of the finest and most complex minor characters in Journey Downstairs (1934) -- sharp witted, impressive, and loathsome all at once. His street smarts and observational skills in the end prove extremely helpful to Swan.

INNOVATIONS: The detection in Journey Downstairs is based more on behavior and psychology than anything else. In this regard it owes a lot to the Anthony Berkeley school where psychological motives are the focus. Swan's summation in the final chapter is almost exclusively based upon his observations of the suspects, his uncanny knack of figuring out who is really who based on their behavior and speech, and his refusal to believe that most of these people could commit murder. He eliminates suspects using behavioral clues and does not really build his case on physical evidence. In fact, there is very little of that at all.

Italian edition. Title is literally
translated as Invitation with Murder
Here's an anti-innovation not at all the fault of the writer. One crucial piece of physical evidence is casually mentioned in passing very early in the book and never talked of again. If the reader bothered to read the lengthy blurb that precedes the title page in the US edition (the one I own and read), also found on the front flap of the US dust jacket, he will have that piece of evidence crammed into his face in a tantalizing series of questions. An unwise choice on the part of Doubleday Doran's editors, in my opinion. If you ever find a copy I suggest you do not read the blurb until you have finished the book. It doesn't give away the game, but it certainly ruins the fair play elements a bit by drawing to the reader's attention the one clue that shows who is responsible for the murder.

What is innovative is the manner in which Swan employs Philmore as his Watson. Periodically, the two sit together and Swan encourages Philmore to ask questions of him about the murder investigation and he will elaborate and elucidate if the question merits an answer. But too often Swan gives us the old "I'd rather not tell you at this stage" type of comeback. This is a tactic that I thought went out of fashion in the early 1920s but apparently was still a standard annoyance in 1934.

Clearly, some of the answers to Philmore's pointed and intelligent questions would spoil the suspense. But in one case (having to do with the true identity of a "Mr. Robinson" who took Joyce to a hotel) I thought, after seeing the answer given in the final chapter, that telling Philmore and therefore the reader the answer immediately would have been spoiled nothing. In fact it would've made the story more exciting. But this is, after all, a first novel. So I'm willing to forgive the writer for his laxity and lazy style of holding back facts until the denouement.

Lastly, I feel it necessary to call attention to the title of the book. Just like Helen McCloy did with Cue for Murder, the title Journey Downstairs is one of the best clues to lead the reader in the proper direction.

Herbert Edmund Howard (1900- ?)
THE AUTHOR: "R. Philmore" was the pseudonym for writer Herbert Edmund Howard who wrote as H. E. Howard.  Howard was a researcher and historian whose non-fiction writing graced the pages of many an academic journal throughout the 1930s and 1940s. He wrote The Eighteenth Century and the Revolution, 1714-1815 (Gollancz, 1935) published as part three in Gollancz' multi-volume set "An Outline of European History." Of interest to crime fiction devotees are his two essays for the Cambridge University Press publication Discovery, subtitled "The Popular Journal of Knowledge" and helmed by C. P. Snow, one of Howard's close friends. "Inquest on Detective Stories" appeared in the April 1938 issue of Discovery. The essay written in collaboration with physician Dr. John Yudkin examines the validity and efficacy of some poisoning murders in several popular detective novels from the 1920s and 1930s. Its follow-up "Second Inquest on Detective Stories" written solely by Howard was published in the December 1938 issue. This time Howard in the guise of "R. Philmore" looked at a variety of motives of fictional murderers in detective novels. Both essays can be read using Google Books. His detective fiction consists of seven novels, five with Swan and Philmore as the sleuthing duo, and two featuring Inspector Garnett.

THINGS I LEARNED:  In one unusual and inventive scene Swan visits Rev. Cornish at a boys' club.  He insists that Cornish, his vicar/boss Canon Golightly, and all the boys play a game called "Priest in the Parish." The rules are cursorily explained in the book and not well enough for me to understand what was going on. So I headed to Google and found the game described in great detail in a Wikipedia article! (Does EVERYTHING have a Wikipedia page?  Well, H. E. Howard doesn't.)

Basically it's a call and response game designed for large groups  I can't imagine it working very well with less than ten people. One person plays the Priest and the rest of the players are split into groups and assigned into rows. The Priest calls out a phrase to which the players must respond with a given reply and must do so quickly and in unison. If they answer out of turn or one person in the group is not with the others, then they forfeit and must go to the back row and all other groups advance forward filling in the missing row. The goal is to be the group that is the closest to the front when the Priest ends the game. Swan sees the game as a test of concentration, teamwork and -- oddly -- devotion. He manages to discover a few things about Cornish and Canon Golightly that he otherwise would not be able to discern through mere questioning. Interested in the exact rules of "Priest in the Parish"?  See this blog article. 

EASY TO FIND?  Well, what do you think?  That's right. No. Through sheer luck and timing I found the only available copy of the US edition back in April of last year and spent a mere $23. There are currently two UK editions for sale online, both with dust jackets, and both priced way too high for anyone but the most discerning and rich of book collectors. I enjoyed reading this book and was hoping I could find at least one or two others. However, the only other title being sold is one in French (L'election de minuit, 1936). Based on the publication date I'm guessing it's the French edition of Riot Act, the second Swan and Philmore mystery, which has a political background that would match the "election" in the French title. There are literally zero copies of any other R Philmore mystery novels offered anywhere in the world. At least via online third party bookselling sites. What a shame. Based on my reading of his debut novel, the laudatory comments that Gollancz plastered all over the front of their editions of Journey Downstairs, plus the few reviews I've read of other Philmore mystery novels these seem to be top notch example of detective fiction.  Perhaps a plea to independent presses out there might make new editions materialize out of the limbo of the past. Yes, I'm pleading.

R. Philmore's Detective Novels
Journey Downstairs (1934)
Riot Act (1935)
The Good Books (1936)
No Mourning in the Family (1937)
Short List (1938)
Above five titles with Swan and Philmore

Death in Arms (1939) - with Inspector Garnett
Procession of Two (1940) - with Inspector Garnett

Friday, January 25, 2019

FFB: The Deaths of Lora Karen - Roman McDougald

THE STORY: Philip Cabot, private investigator, has been asked to the home of Charles and Lora Karen at the behest of the wife. She believes that someone is trying to kill her, but is being stubbornly secretive about it all. She promises to reveal everything to Cabot at the dinner party that will take place in the book's first chapter. But before she has a chance to talk about anything the killer strikes -- and with abandon. Lora Karen is poisoned, a maid is strangled, and Dr. Morley, who is called to try and save Mrs. Karen, is bashed on the head. Someone also seems to be hiding somewhere on the Karen estate -- someone who seems to be able to change shape from a large and powerful monstrous size according to the terrified maid to someone who wears shoes the size of a child's like the pair found mysteriously placed in a guest's bathroom. Cabot unravels all the mysteries and uncovers a group of criminals in the Karen household, including the murderer who devised The Deaths of Lora Karen (1944).

THE CHARACTERS: Cabot seems to be modeled on Philip Marlowe but which private eye of the 1940s wasn't? Unlike Marlowe, however, Cabot doesn't go it alone down those mean streets. He has a medium-sized agency in New York with not only a faithful and attractive secretary (Lib Terry), but at least five named operatives who are assigned the footwork to help with the Karen case. It's rare in crime fiction of this Golden Age to come across a private detective who actually runs a real agency with a full staff. Nero Wolfe is probably the best known of this type, but I also know of Carney Wilde created by Bart Spicer who also had a agency that grew in size and reputation over the course of the series. Still, most fictional private eyes go it solo or have only one partner.

In a nod to the Van Dine and Queen books there is also Jefferson Boynton, the Manhattan D.A. who can't resist rushing to the latest murder scene and getting his hands dirty in the police investigation. His wife (who is also Cabot's sister) is always complaining how Boynton is never home, always thinking of the next great case that he can add to his prosecution successes, always speeding away to be first on the scene of a grisly murder. She knows that her husband treats murder as a career stepping stone, and talks of how he hopes the next murder will be sensational enough in the news and can be used as political leverage when elections hit the calendar. We get more of Boynton and Cabot as detective than we do of Captain Kroll and his squad of o policemen. That Boynton is also Cabot's brother-in-law makes for an interesting dynamic with argumentative fireworks enlivening the investigation as the case gets more complicated.

Similar to Chandler novels the Karen family is wealthy and chockful of secrets and deception. Charles Karen is a boxing promoter who married into his first wife's well-to-do family. Lora Karen was his daughter's governess during that first marriage. The house party also sports Maurice Bode, a drop dead gorgeous portrait painter described as looking more like an artist's model than a painter; his girlfriend Avis Searcy, seductive and enigmatic; Felicie Karen, a teen-aged vamp typical of the hardboiled genre; Lora's money grubbing parasite of a cousin Barry Duret; and Roger Niehl, a waspish lawyer who deals with the Karens' legal and financial business. No wealthy household is without its loyal servants either. Jaffre is the butler willing to protect his employer at great risk and Josephine is Lora's easily terrified maid convinced a monster invaded the home and nearly strangled her to death.

Dr. Paul Morley shows up when a doctor is needed to try and save Lora after she is poisoned. The maid thinks Morley is Lora's physician, but it turns out he is her psychoanalyst who gave up his practice as a G.P. when he discovered being a disciple of Freud was more lucrative. When Lora dies Morley is one of the key figures who helps unravel the superstitious, highly imaginative woman's troubled life weeding out her fantasies from the truth. He is instrumental in aiding Cabot uncover the identity of a blackmailing fiend who may have turned killer.

Cabot not only needs to figure out who was threatening and blackmailing Lora Karen, but who eventually succeeded in her poisoning her, who broke into the house attempting to steal her jewelry, who left the tiny shoes in Avis' bathroom, who attacked Josephine and Dr. Morley. Before the case is finally disentangled and all the culprits are un discovered there will be two more violent attacks and one gruesome murder.

INNOVATIONS: Some of you may have heard of or read the new sensation mystery novel The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, a weird fantasy/sci-fi/detective/horror novel mishmash that I don't think much of unlike the rest of the world.  Unlike that book the deaths of the victim here are not fantastically repeated over and over.  In fact the title McDougald invented is more of a metaphor for the attempts made on Lora Karen's life and the other attempts made on the lives of others who knew Lora. Death seemed to haunt this woman, both in the present and the past. Of all these "deaths" it is the demise of the first Mrs. Karen that will figure prominently in the solution of the various mysteries.

McDougald has a good feel for Gothic atmosphere. The opening of the book is notably creepy with a pervading aura of paranoid delusions. Lora is presented as a wildly imaginative woman, ever fearful, and yet canny of her relatives and their underhanded motives. The night of Lora's poisoning is filled with violence and eerie events. Josephine seems to have been infected by her mistress' imagination and rants about the shape and form of her attacker. Evidence of an escape via a vine-covered trellis by a bedroom window with balcony shows that someone descended, but no large "monster" could have done so without tearing the vines from the trellis. No heavy footprints are found on the damp ground either. McDougald does a fine job of creating genuine mystery, adding an element of fantastic horror into the novel. When Cabot starts following leads about the possibility of a dwarf or midget being the criminal the novel enters the realm of the grotesque. Poe would have been proud of those sections.

The most striking and inventive part of the book for me was the number of crimes and the nontraditional aspect of multiple criminals. Gritty hardboiled private eye fiction tends to veer away from the formulae of the traditional detective story in which the finale unveils only one culprit responsible for all the crimes. Realism plays a big part is this subgenre and it shouldn't be too shocking to a reader to discover that the blackmailer and the murderer are not the same person. The sheer number of villains unmasked in this book, nevertheless, was indeed a surprise. Four separate endings follow in quick succession, almost as if each incident was being treated as a short story and then all of them were linked to form a novel.

QUOTES: There was a ghost of a smile on Mrs. Karen's own face [in the photo] as he came nearer, and the vision of that set and lifeless pleasantness was as subtly disturbing to the senses as though the photographer in some strange way had anticipated the embalmer.

"Don't tell me he skipped out! Incredible!" roared Boynton. "How could he have disappeared under the very eyes of your men?"
"You'll have to ask them," [said Captain Kroll]. "All I can say is that I ought to have had better sense than to send three Irishmen to a funeral."

THE AUTHOR: Roman Miller McDougald (1905-1960) wrote six crime novels, three of which feature his private investigator Philip Cabot. According to a living relative who left a comment at the Mystery*File blog, McDougald was known as Miller by his friends and family. He also apparently worked in Hollywood from information I found in a brief newspaper article I dug up on the internet. An attempt to confirm this at was fruitless; there is no listing under either name in that database. Perhaps none of the movies or TV shows he worked on gave him credit in the final production. I was unable to find anything else about him.

Philip Cabot Private Eye Novels
The Deaths of Lora Karen (1944)
The Whistling Legs (1945)
The Blushing Monkey (1953)

Friday, January 18, 2019

FFB: Darkness of Slumber - Rosemary Kutak

THE STORY: Eve Minary has suffered a nervous breakdown and been in a catatonic state for seven years ever since the death of her father Judge Ladbrooke. Through the miracle of a new intravenous drug treatment she is about to awaken from her Darkness of Slumber (1944). Her doctors are hopeful that as she regains her power of speech and memory they will be able to discover what sent her into a catatonia. While Eve is recovering Dr. Ian McKeith and his protégé Dr. Marc Castleman conduct several interviews with family and friends. These conversations reveal details of the past and the two psychiatrists begin to suspect that a long forgotten murder -- of an assistant who worked for Eve's lawyer husband Phillip -- might be tangled up in Eve's strange psychological malady. But when the final treatment of the drug is administered Eve suddenly dies. Castleman orders an autopsy so that he can be sure the drug was not the cause and he discovers that Eve had been poisoned with nicotine. Castleman begins his own investigation certain that the two murders are interconnected and that Eve was silenced for what she knew.

THE CHARACTERS: The two psychiatrists serve as amateur sleuths in the early part of the novel. When Castleman, the younger of the two physicians, grows tired of the sloppy police work and suspects that the head police detective may have personal interests in a cover-up connected to a political graft scandal he decides to take matters into his own hands. McKeith warns Castleman that his questions may uncover more problems and lead to further trauma for everyone involved. Castleman takes the lecture at face value, is relatively unmoved by his mentor's dire warnings, and is determined to pursue the truth.

There is a relatively large cast of characters centering on the Minary and Ladbrooke families. Everyone in the cast gets their moment to shine as Castleman conducts his interviews and subtle probing of the events that led to the murder of Hal Crane, a legal assistant who worked for Phil Minary. But though we get to know Scott Ladbrooke, Eve's devoted brother; Barbara Minary, Phil's second wife; Jeff Halsey, Phil's law partner; and a couple of odd mental patients at Oaklawn Hospital the real standouts among the suspects are the two women -- Cissie Humber, Eve's best friend, and Madeleine Ladbrooke, Scott's wife. Kutak has a lot to say about these two women and women of the post-war years in general.

There are three sections for the book, each told from a different point of view. Barbara is the first narrator, Dr. McKeith is the second and Castleman who tells more than three quarters of the story is the last narrator. Kutak exploits her two male points of view in order to comment on the emergence of a new ideal of woman that she clearly finds horrifying. Madeleine is the embodiment of "the complete negation of femininity." Kutak sums her up with a savage description when McKeith is reminded of a platinum mannequin he once saw in a department store window, a faceless cold metal figurine: "The worst feature of the grotesque figurine was its intention. For it was not a caricature, but an interpretation of feminine sophistication. Only a woman as streamlined and metallic as the mannequin could properly wear the clothes it displayed."

In contrast there is Cissie who unlike Madeleine is not a beauty hiding herself in clothes and artful make-up but rather she is a brash and loud celebration of everything women like Madeleine are trying to restrain and squash. Cissie with her frank humor and self-deprecating style has the best lines in the book, she has the most humanity, the most common sense. She is one of the few characters who sees events and people for what they. When prompted to give up her one secret she does so easily and with great relief much to her surprise. So grateful is Cissie to Dr. Castleman for his gentle compassionate manner she practically begs to become his next client for psychoanalysis. Castleman sees it as a flippant remark, but is nonetheless equally thankful for Cissie's revelation of a damaging incident in her past that proves crucial to understanding why Eve had her nervous breakdown.

INNOVATIONS: One of the most unusual detective stories of the 1940s Darkness of Slumber is a prototype of the now popular forensic psychology crime drama. As both a detective story in its traditional sense and also one of memory and behavior Rosemary Kutak handles her original idea with sophistication and insight. The novel relies heavily on recall of the past and conver-sations make up most of the action, but it is not without moments of true suspense and dangerous incidents.

Kutak's penchant for literary metaphors make for some startling images. However, her conceit of using the analogy of an animal hunt for the murderer's search gets heavy-handed when she refers to the still unnamed killer as "the tiger" for an entire chapter.

There is a notable emphasis on describing women's clothing, especially the prominence of brown shades. Barbara shows up in a brown outfit and her arrival into a room is likened to the rush of autumn leaves sweeping down a sidewalk. Madeleine wears nothing but beige and taupe and tan. She is described as being "overbred" and "enervated." In one arresting paragraph Castleman sees Madeleine as only coming to life when the talk turns to death calling her a modern ghoul and a vampire.

THINGS I LEARNED: When Marc Castleman looks up the symptoms and reactions of nicotine poisoning he consults Pearson. I figured this must be the author of a book on toxicology. And I was right. Arthur Pearson Luff (1855-1938) was a physician and chemist and is considered the founder of forensic chemistry. His manual Textbook on Forensic Medicine and Toxicology was published in 1855 and went though numerous editions well into the 1930s. It is apparently a bible for anyone in medical jurisprudence and physicians who want to know anything about poisons. And based on the reference in this novel Pearson's book must have still been in use in 1944.

QUOTES: There passed through her mind, memory of a superstition of early mankind, about the mandrake. The plant that shrieked when uprooted, and brought death and a calamity to any mortal who dared disturb nature's secret plant. Those screams of Eve's...that must be how the mandrake root sounded when torn from the enveloping soil. A protest from nature itself!

Abruptly Madeleine's careful lacquer of poise cracked up, and suppressed emotion flooded to the surface. The horror in her eyes, the profound inner shudder, revealed the force of haunting memory. [...] But abruptly as it had lifted Madeleine's noncommittal mask came down over her face again. Disappointingly the lid of Pandora's box had banged shut and McKeith wondered in sharp dismay how he was going to pry it open again.

Cissie: "Do you see what I see over there? Slacks in this restaurant! I guess there is a war going on but I didn't think it made people so desperate. That woman's rump looks like a trailer bumping along behind a four door sedan."

Cissie: "Hal said I didn't look like I belonged to this century. That I had a medieval look -- a look of 'timeless endurance and ancient tenacity.' Something Rembrandt painted into his pictures of peasants and mystics. I think Hal meant it for a compliment, but as I recall peasants and mystics are not conspicuous for their feminine charm. And the old Dutchman always painted such stolid looking women. I can't say that I'm very thrilled at being taken for a Rembrandt."

McKeith: "It seems that your husband and I both have closed minds"
Madeleine: "Isn't that to be expected? After all, you're both men."

THE AUTHOR:  I can find very little about Rosemary Kutak other than she was born in 1905 and died in 1999 in Louisville, Kentucky. Her real first name is Margaret and her maiden name is...Norris! (No relation at all, I assure you.) She wrote only two mystery novels. Her second novel I Am the Cat (1948) also features Dr. Marc Castleman as detective and is modeled on the old country house mystery novel formula. I'll be reviewing that book later this year.

RECEPTION: Darkness of Slumber was one of the most widely popular mystery novels published in 1944. The original hardcover from Lippincott went into three printings over a course of six months and was still selling in the spring of 1945. The Pocket Book paperback published two years after the hardcover had two printings. The book was also named one of the "Ten Best" novels by The New York Times Book Review. Isaac Sanderson in his December 3, 1944 New York Times book review called Kutak's novel "extraordinary." The Edgar Awards had yet to be invented in 1944, but I'm sure if they had existed Darkness of Slumber would have been a leading contender for Best First Mystery.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

FFB: The Frog Was Yellow - Francis Vivian

Prior to his ten novel series starring Inspector Gordon Knollis Francis Vivian wrote a brief string of books featuring another policeman detective in the lead. The Frog Was Yellow (1940) is the apparently the second, possibly third, appearance of Acting Inspector (formerly Sergeant) Ronald Drew and his wife and sometime collaborator Drusila. (Yes, that makes her Dru Drew. Why on earth did he saddle her with that ridiculous moniker?) In this second outing Drusila, who we are reminded in a few footnotes was something of a skilled ghostbuster in their previous adventure Dark Moon (1939), acts as the first in a trio of narrators in the three separate “books” that make up the novel. Ronnie Drew is our second storyteller in part two and the novel is closed up with the reluctantly recruited third narrator in the voice of Inspector Burton, one of the many supporting policemen characters is this police procedural style detective novel. Though The Frog Was Yellow may have a decidedly strange title and its story may be tinged with a modicum of weirdness, it is nevertheless another stellar example of Vivian’s intricate plotting, fine fair play clueing, and thoroughly original storytelling.

The Drews are newlyweds in this novel and have just purchased a new home. While it is undergoing a heavy-duty renovation and refurbishing they are invited to stay at Black Canons, the home of Drusila’s (I just can’t call her Dru, though Ronnie does so all the time) friend Corry Dane and Corry’s great aunt and uncle Georgina and Henry Dane. The elder Danes are brother and sister, not spouses. Uncle Henry is recently on leave from the Home Office with whom he was an agent in stationed in Germany. Georgie has made a name and nuisance of herself as both an outspoken social activist and interfering busybody. When not protesting the death penalty in vociferous picketing she is handing out birth control literature to people she thinks have too large families. She has her nose in everyone’s business including her brother’s shady past in what was most likely a counterespionage scheme involving the Gestapo. Needless to say Georgie has made many enemies and will come to a bad end.

When Georgie is murdered under bizarre circumstances it is thought that an angry local man named Rawlinson (the recipient of her birth control handouts and her accusatory finger) is most likely responsible for her death. But one day later his body is found dumped down an abandoned well. Ronnie Drew, his wife Drusila, and several policemen join forces in an intensely intricate investigation to discover who killed the two people and why.

Ronnie and Drusila make for engaging couple. I believed them as a married couple, albeit newlyweds. The ways in which Drusila manages to be on the scene and assists in the investigation were all cleverly introduced into the story. There was never a time when I felt she was being a snoop or a know-it-all. Ronnie is only 29 years old and she is 23 yet they have a maturity to them that makes them all the more appealing. No Tommy and Tuppence lighthearted crime solving here. No competition between the two either. Drusila trusts her husband to do his job and she doesn’t give him advice even when she tells him that she knows who the killer is way back on page 122 in this 284 page book.

Every reader likes a good amount of clues in a traditional detective novel. In The Frog Was Yellow there is a veritable avalanche of what readers expect from a Golden Age detective novel, but even I have to admit Vivian was laying it on a bit thick in the Clue Department. Among this plethora of clues are an engraved brooch, a stolen packet of secret documents, a pair of woman’s gloves that appear and disappear too frequently, two separate disguises hidden in unusual places, a black homburg hat, recently oiled hinges on a handicraft shed, splashes of molten metal on the wall of the same shed, and of course the titular frog which turns out to be a lawn ornament with some barely noticeable blood stains. Are any of these red herrings? Not a single one! You may need a tally card to take notes and match up everything in the strangely complex plot.

For much of the book it appears that Lionel Scraptoft, the 29 year-old estate keeper at Black Canons, is the killer. Though he claims to have been knocked unconscious near the scene of one murder nearly every bit of evidence seems to point to him. Ronnie finds himself stepping in and giving expert advice and cautioning Superintendent Thompson to slow down and to apply the evidence to the case rather than fitting the circumstances to Scraptoft who Thompson is convinced is guilty.

What else would you like? Eyewitnesses? There are two. Killers in disguise? Present and accounted for. Bodies moved from the actual scene of the crime to divert suspicion? Check! Perhaps multiple solutions and some rabid accusations from the many suspects? You get them in abundance, too. As much as I have enjoyed multiple solutions in the work of Christianna Brand, who seemed to have cornered the market on them in her small number of detective novels, in The Frog Was Yellow this unusual plot motif may have been Vivian’s greatest handicap.

Vivian has impressively managed to come up with so many solutions to the two crimes and one attempted cover-up that by the penultimate chapter nearly everyone who appears in the novel has been named the guilty party. Each time a solution is presented we get legitimately outlined methods and motives with all the evidence accounted for. It’s an incredible feat of both imagination and intricate plotting. I was duly impressed. And yet…

In the final pages when we are confronted with the real murderer it all ends with something of an anticlimax. Having read of at least five different variations of how Georgie and Rawlinson were killed to be presented with a sixth (or is it seventh?) final and genuine solution diminished the surprise quotient. What should have been eyebrow-raising shock instead elicited a mere “Oh really?” comment from me. But one final lurid touch did effect a gasp from me just before the novel's close.