An insatiably curious writer is compelled to investigate the poisoning death of a fellow passenger who died while on board a train en route to Philadelphia. His manner of investigation is unique -- he concocts short stories based on interviews he conducts with the suspects.
The victim, a vindictive and shallow society woman named Susan Ward Steele, appears in one brief scene in the first chapter. She is presented only through protagonist Mark Kent's eyes and it is only later in his interviews we get to really know her as she is described by others. Her character is therefore is known solely through the perceptions of others. Ultimately, Susan Steele is a complete invention of Mark Kent's. Within the story she is a real woman, but in essence nothing more than a character that Mark creates based on his brief eyewitness account of her interactions with the men in the train car with and his imagining of her personality drawn from his many interviews and the descriptions of others. This is a subtle part of the book that doesn't truly sink in until well into the middle section when Mark begins to master his unusual investigative technique via fiction.
Among the suspects are Gerald Steele, Susan's husband; Robert Ward, Susan's brother; Hallie & Sue Ward, Robert's wife and daughter; Thomas Doone, the Steele's man of all work; Margaret Ryan, a maid who works for Claire Ellis, Susan's old schoolgirl pal and "frenemy"; a radio singer named Lina Lind; and Pierce Carlton, a callous playboy who had affairs with both Susan and Claire. Among these characters we get a mix of shallow stereotyped characterization and a handful of intriguingly complex people.
The servants, Doone and Margaret feature rather prominently in the story and turn out to be boyfriend/girlfriend but both come off as Irish immigrant caricatures rather than real people. But they should not be ignored, especially Thomas Doone. He has a secret connected to one of the suspects in the case which turns out to be one of the biggest plot twists.
Overall, this is a somewhat standard storyline of jealousies and hatred directed at Susan who made very few friends in her selfish life and hedonistic pursuits of sex, drinking and shopping for expensive clothes. I wanted to read more of Gerald Steele's life in the radio broadcast world (he's an announcer for some music programs), but this is largely left offstage and only incidentally mentioned. Robert Ward and his family tend to get a lot of focus in the story, and Ward is yet another stereotype of a priggish, self-righteous moralist, in direct contrast to his indulgent amoral sister. It is Claire Ellis, however, who turns out to be the most fascinating character in the novel.
Claire has only one big scene but she and her maid Margaret do turn up in "Tea Tray for Two", one of the four short stories Mark writes. Claire is a war widow whose husband died in Spain. Just prior to his death she accidentally discovered that he was having an affair with Susan Steele when she spots him paying for a hotel room that Susan and he had shared. Later, she developed a romantic interest in Pierce Carlton and when Susan finds this out Claire is targetted as yet one more victim in Susan's serial man-stealing. More than any of the other suspects Claire seems to have an intense hatred for Susan though she continues to carry on a social friendship with her. Mark is drawn to Claire, feels empathy for a woman so exploited and abandoned but cannot shake from his mind that she seems to have a very strong motive and more than ample opportunity to have poisoned Susan's tea the day she died.
INNOVATIONS: Death at 7:10
(1943) makes use of two intriguing notions. One of course is the brilliant use of a murder investigation that is solely conducted using fiction writing techniques. It is the ultimate meta-detective novel, one that I've not come across at all in my vast reading in the genre. Both the notebook interviews (as close to verbatim dialogue as possible) and the stories contain major clues about character, incident and possible motivation for the murder. The ingenuity comes in Mark's melding of imaginative thinking with hard facts in his reconstructions of events that took place the day of the murder, events he was not witness to and has no evidence of. Instead of physical evidence he has something akin to metaphysical evidence -- memories and narratives. He must decide who is telling the truth, who is covering up, and glean from subtle references and passing remarks in his interviews what is most vital in understanding who wanted Susan dead and when they found the time to give her the poison. The story sections are rich with detail, especially clothing and interior decoration descriptions which Mark uses to great effect to reveal character.
Speaking of poison, the method of murder is the second most unusual aspect of the book. Susan at first appears to have died from the last drink she took on board the train, a Bromo-Seltzer for her hangover. However, the autopsy reveals poisoning by atropine, a primary ingredient in common medications like eyedrops used by several characters in the novel. Mark learns that the effects of atropine poison are not always consistent. Death can take place anywhere between one and eight hours after ingestion. All day Susan had been visiting with friends and family and drinking all sorts of beverages. As the cover illustration for the Doubleday Crime Club first edition suggests it could have been any one of the many drinks she imbibed throughout the day that had been poisoned. The short stories Mark writes point this out, either directly or indirectly, by mentioning the drink in the title: "Sunday Morning Breakfast" (Susan had coffee), "Cognac at the Barclay", "Pheasant at the Wards" (sauterne was served with ice cubes (!), as well as coffee) and the previously mentioned "Tea Tray for Two." In each story the reader should pay careful attention to who had opportunity to poison any of Susan's drinks. When Mark and Dr. Grant Newton discuss the solution to the murder case in the final chapter we learn that all the clues were present in both the notebook sections and the stories Mark writes.
THINGS I LEARNED:
This book is loaded with 1940s pop culture references. On page one alone I had to consult the internet four times to figure out what Moore was talking about! The first troublesome sentence is Mark's first impression of Susan who he sees as a "picture drawn by Petty
, disguised and undisguised by Mainbocher
." I guess my parents would have had no trouble spotting those two people I've highlighted in bold type, but I was lost. I figured they had to do with the art world, but I was only half right.
was one of the most popular artists of pin-up drawings in the pre- and post-WW2 era. That's one of his women over on the right. You've seen his influence in the work of artists like Rudolph Belarksi and Rafael DeSoto whose women have graced the covers of both pulp magazines and vintage crime paperbacks.
Main Rousseau Bocher
|Mainbocher dress, 1943|
was an American born fashion designer with a very French name who studied at art academies in Chicago and New York. After brief careers as a lithographer, fashion illustrator for Harper's Bazaar
and French fashion correspondent for Vogue
, he opened his own design house named after himself, a combination of his first and last names. Mainbocher would gain instant fame and increase his popularity after his wedding dress design for the Duchess of Windsor's notorious marriage in 1937. According to Therese Duzinkiewicz Baker's article at the online Encyclopedia of Fashion
: "From the start, Mainbocher specialized in simple, conservative, elegant, and extremely expensive fashions, the luxury of cut, materials, and workmanship that could only be recognized by those in the know. Most importantly, the clothes, exquisitely finished inside and out, gave self-confidence to the women who wore them."
Page 5 features a long paragraph about Susan's clothes which include "the frivolous ribbon of a Lily Daché
." This one I didn't have to look up because I'm such an avid vintage cinema fan. I was proud to know this was the name of a famous milliner made world famous by her work for movie stars and whose hats appeared in countless movies. Moore was describing one of the extravagant ornaments on Susan's hat that were Daché's trademark.
|Portrait de Madame Paul Guillaume, 1928|
© Photo: Josse/Leemage, © ADAGP, Paris
Another art reference crops up as an aside on p. 59: "She wiped off a smudge on the creamy buff woodwork, poked at the blazing logs in the fireplace, straightened the Marie Laurencin
over the marble mantel..."
Laurencin was an avant garde Parisian painter, a member of Section D'Or. Most of her early work was done in gray, pink, blue pastel shades. She started as a porcelain painter then transitioned to oil painting on canvas.
I smiled when my old friend the Capehart record changing phonograph
made two appearances in the novel. More about that remarkable invention in this post
In the first chapter Moore makes numerous allusions to Nick Charles
when describing Mark Kent in both looks and attitude. But he's talking about the movie Nick Charles as portrayed by William Powell
and not the Greek American son of immigrants who appears in Hammett's novel The Thin Man
. Here's how Mark is described: "If the woman across the aisle was a Petty drawing Mark Kent was most un-Esquire
; he was rather Anthony Eden-Nick Charles-Scott Fitzgerald."
THE RADIO SHOW:
I've only recently discovered that Doubleday Crime Club had a radio series. There were actually two versions -- one lasted from 1931 to 1932 and was broadcast on CBS, the other began in 1946 on the Mutual Broadcasting System and lasted just over a year. Both programs were sponsored by Eno's Effervescent Salts. Scripts for the 1946 series were a mixture of adaptations of Crime Club books and original stories. Unlike the multi-part episodes of the first 1930s series the MBS programs were full stories told in a single half hour episode. Death at 7:10
(original air date July 7, 1947) apparently was the penultimate show in the MBS series. The Librarian who serves as host of each episode introduces the story by answering a telephone and telling the caller "Yes, we have that Crime Club novel." Death at 7:10
had a tantalizing catchphrase to end the intro: "The very intriguing story of a beautiful woman who was in love... with death!"
You can hear the entire broadcast via YouTube
. For purposes of a 30 minute radio show all the novels needed to be condensed and many of the best characters in Death at 7:10
were eliminated. As a disappointing consequence of these drastic cuts the murderer and motive had to be changed. In the radio show the murderer makes no sense as far as I'm concerned; murder is completely out of character for the person chosen. The book is much better. So we see that even script adaptations from over 70 years ago also suffered the travesty of revision and rewriting and are not solely an affliction of contemporary culture, like the recent spate of Christie manglings for TV and cinema.
For more on the Crime Club radio shows see the page at Digital Deli Too
, the most accurate and informative of the old time radio sites.