Sunday, June 12, 2011

Vintage Mystery Sundays: Unexpected Night

It's Vintage Mystery Sunday and time to step into my vault of classic mysteries and choose one to feature that I read and loved before blogging took over my life and I began reviewing everything I read. This week I'm featuring Unexpected Night by Elizabeth Daly. I don't quite remember how I first found out about Daly and her charming and urbane amateur detective, Henry Gamadge. I think I stumbled across my first one in the tiny local library in the equally tiny town where my husband & I lived when we were first married. If it's true that this is where I first encountered Daly's mysteries which feature the consultant on rare books who has turned detective, then my first Daly was Death and Letters. Someone in that town had a vast love for the 30s-60s era detective novel. I've never been in a library which shelved such a large number of mysteries in comparison to the total circulation.

Elizabeth Daly was born in 1878 in New York City. She was the daughter of the NYC Supreme Court judge, Joseph Francis Daly, and the niece of the playwright and producer, Augustin Daly--and was brought up in a legal and literary atmosphere. She began her literary career at age sixteen publishing light poetry and prose in various magazines, but did not write her first mystery until she was sixty-two. She eventually wrote a total of 16 detective novels. According to her bio in Unexpected Night, she "considered the detective novel at its best a high form of literature and didn't seek to write any other form of fiction." It has also been said in many places that Daly was Agatha Christie's favorite American mystery writer.

Unexpected Night (1940) is Daly's first novel. In it we are introduced to Henry Gamadge, bibliophile and consultant on old books, autographs, and inks. He lives on the East Side of New York, but is willing to roam afield to investigate a suspicious signature....or an untimely death. This first recorded adventure finds Gamadge taking a few days off for rest and golf. His little holiday is interrupted by the untimely death of young Amberley Cowden. Cowden's body is discovered at the bottom of a cliff and is soon ruled an accidental death. But if that is true, why is it so obvious that the scene has been staged? And it does seem a bit odd that Cowden should suffer a fatal accident so soon after receiving an inheritance. Gamadge also wonders what role Amberley's cousin and the encamped troupe of actors are playing in the strange twists and turns of events. All evidence would seem to indicate that someone is playing to a different script--one of murder and mayhem. Can Gamadge fulfill his role and resolve it all before another character is removed from the cast list?

Even this first novel is well crafted and plotted. As the series continues, Daly becomes more confident and is able to provided more tightly constructed plots. But all the elements are there in her first attempt. She also has a fine control of character and provides a very nice picture of society through the interactions between just a few characters. It is very easy to slide into the late 30s and 40s with Daly leading the way. And Gamadge is a wonderful character--I love his genteel and urbane manners. And, of course, I love that he's a bibliophile. All in all a truly delightful, cozy mystery series.

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