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)


  1. John, this is amazing--another case of you beating me to the punch. I recently picked this one up and have it on the TBR pile. Thanks for a terrific preview.

    1. HA! Great minds..., right? I've had this book for years! When we were in NYC earlier this month for my theater weekend getaway I went to Otto Penzler's famed Mysterious Bookshop. Found and bought a very nice copy of The Whistling Legs (among a couple other rarities) so I figured it was about time I read all the Roman McDougald private eye books. I plan on reviewing all three Philip Cabot's cases. Didn't you read The Blushing Monkey several years ago? Kind of funny to start with the last one, right? Did you like that book? I think McDougald shows great promise with this debut. I read a review of a non-Cabot McDougald crime novel on Mystery*File that sounds even more Gothic than this one. I, of course, bought a copy of that one, too.

  2. No--The Blushing Monkey wasn't me. This one is the only one of his that I've found so far.

    1. Oh sorry. I had to check and it turns out it was TomCat. The Blushing Monkey has a locked room murder so he would obviously be drawn to the book. Eager to finish this trilogy. Look forward to reading your review of ...Lora Karen. I finally moved you over to my blog roll on the right hand side so I won't miss any more of your posts!

    2. "I had to check and it turns out it was TomCat. The Blushing Monkey has a locked room murder so he would obviously be drawn to the book."

      Who else could have possibly read that very obscure locked room novel? By the way, The Whistling Legs was reprinted, as an ebook, in 2016, but I'll await your review before tossing it on the big pile.

  3. Thanks for discussing what seems to be yet another forgotten gem. I look forward to your reviews of the other Cabot cases.

  4. Sounds really interesting. I'd never heard of either author or book.

    1. Pleasantly surprised by this one. It received some harsh reviews when it was first published. I think most reviewers overlooked the parts that made it stand out and instead did the usual comparison with Chandler who he clearly was emulating at times. The book seemed a bit subversive to me in the way he broke rules about having one murderer/culprit. I'm trying to focus on the forgotten and VERY obscure Americans this year. Lots more coming whom I'm sure most people have never heard of.