Tuesday, November 18, 2014

October 8 Challenge: Square One

As I mentioned back in October, my friend Noah, Golden Age Detection (GAD) aficionado and participant in my Vintage Mystery Challenge, has put together the October 8 Challenge. A Bingo-style Golden Age mystery essay challenge, to be exact. My goal, overall, is to complete one Bingo and to fill in at least one square in 2014. Now, I have to say, I'm not quite the mystery scholar that some of my fellow-GAD folks are--but I'm out to do my best. 

For my first effort I present a little examination of three books published in 1946--brought to my attention by Rich's monthly book-of-the-year challenge (November is 1946). They came to me all nicely bound together in a well-preserved Detective Book Club Edition. How much more convenient could you get? The leading story is The D.A. Breaks a Seal by Erle Stanley Gardner and it represents my first experience with Gardner's series featuring Doug Selby who serves through most of the series as the District Attorney in fictional Madison City, California. Seal is the seventh in this nine-book series and, apparently, is the odd-book out--covering Selby's only adventure during the period in which he served in the military as an intelligence officer during World War II. 

The story finds Selby on a week's furlough before heading back to the war in the Pacific. He decides to stop in Madison City to visit with old friends--Sheriff Rex Brandon, reporter Sylvia Martin, and fellow-lawyer Inez Stapleton--and immediately finds himself drawn into mysterious circumstances surrounding a contested will, people wearing white gardenias, and the murder of an unscrupulous lawyer. He plays a few spectacular hunches and manages to help Brandon arrest a killer, Stapleton win a court battle, and give Martin the inside scoop on a the story behind it all.

The D.A. Breaks a Seal was first published in 1946, but obviously covers some time earlier because Major Selby is headed off somewhere unnamed in the Pacific to, as his friend Brandon tells him at the end of the novel, "Clean up the Japs." So the war isn't quite over for Selby. There is also mention of difficulties for anyone wanting to travel purely for pleasure--a point of interest when Selby is investigating one of the gardenia-wearers and how she managed to travel by train to Madison City. Of course references to mass train travel and Pullman cars also give a hint to the time period, but overall the story has a rather timeless feel to it. You know you're reading about early- to mid-twentieth century, but beyond the few mentions of Selby's military service, there isn't much to nail it down tighter than that. And the war doesn't really overshadow the story in any way.

Next in the line-up is Murder Within Murder, one of Frances and Richard Lockridge's light, comic mysteries featuring Pam & Jerry North. In this one, Miss Amelia Gipson (note that's with a "p" and not a "b"--she'd have you know), a retired instructor from girl's college in Indiana, is doing a bit of research for North Books. Her current project is to track down info on several murder cases of the near-past (near to 1946, that is) to provide facts for the authors who will write the cases up for an up-coming North publication.  She winds up poisoned while sitting in the New York Public Library, hard at work on her note-taking. Pam and Jerry naturally have to help Lieutenant Bill Weigand and Sergeant Mullins get to the bottom of things.

The Lockridge book makes it clear that the war is over. Our first look at Jerry North is at home reading a manuscript about the post-war world and he realizes that he's hearing a buzzing sound:

"It must be admitted," the manuscript said, "that in the post-war world we face an increasing agglomeration of--" Clearly, Jerry North decided, it was the manuscript. The post-war world was buzzing at him. Its shining machinery, made to a large degree out of plastic was whirring at unimagined tasks, turning out things made largely of glass. Whatever the post-war world might finally be, it would inevitably also be a buzzing in the ears.

Of course, there really isn't any post-war machinery whirring away in his living room. He looks up to find his wife sitting on the sofa, earnestly trying to beat cream into butter with an egg beater. Just one sign of the post-war world they live in--Pam has already used up her ration points for butter and has decided to make her own. This book is a very good snapshot of New York City at the end of World War II.  There is mention of the difficulties of post-war housing when the subject of how rigid Miss Gipson had been about her apartment comes up. "The manager...said Miss Gipson wanted them to fire the maid. He pointed out that it would have been much easier to replace Miss Gipson; there was a suggestion that he had tactfully, conveyed this fact of post-war housing to her." There is also discussion of what life was like for the soldiers returning from the war. Even Deputy Chief Inspector O'Malley shows the influence of the war in his fondness for the use of snafu in reference to the Norths participation in Weigand's police work. "...the trouble with you, Weigand, is that you let the Norths ball things up. Here you've got a nice simple suicide and you let the Norths ball you up. Snafu!"

The final book in this collection is Hilda Lawrence's The Pavilion. Which features 20-something Regan Carr in a Southern Gothic mystery. When Regan's mother dies, she receives a letter from her cousin Hurst Herald inviting her to come live with him. She last saw him when she was six years old. But she arrives at Herald House, battered suitcase in hand, to find that Cousin Hurst just passed away--yesterday. Her welcome committee isn't very warm and she needs to find a few friends...for it seems like every Herald family member who comes home to the house dies.
Lawrence's book is the least tied to its time period. There is no mention of the war. The only possible reference might be found in a conversation with the old family doctor when he mentions the use of gasoline that brought Regan and her cousin Fray to visit him. But that's it. Otherwise, with the number of servants and the atmosphere in the house, this could just as easily be a Mary Roberts Rinehart book set well before World War II or a Christie country house mystery from between the wars. There is the eccentric group of family members and nervous servants, the feeling of oppression and lurking evil in the house, and the gradual clues that Regan and Fray find in Hurst Herald's papers that seem to indicate that someone just a little bit crazy is knocking off the family one-by-one. Quite the little period piece without being tied to a particular period.


Anonymous said...

First entry other than my own! Thanks Bev -- good stuff. Sometimes I think the writers felt that the readers wanted to forget about the war altogether.

Bev Hankins said...

Thanks, Noah! That may well be. But it's interesting how Lawrence doesn't even really acknowledge it at all. It's like they live in a little bubble--insulated from whatever might have happened in the outside world.

TracyK said...

What a great idea, Bev. I never thought of comparing three books in a Detective Book Club Edition and comparing how they reflect the time. Very interesting.