Sunday, March 29, 2015

Dine & Be Dead: Review

Dine and Be Dead, originally published as Death Lives Next Door (1960), is the sixth mystery in Gwendoline Butler's John Coffin series--but it takes the reader back in time to Inspector Coffin's first case. It also takes us to the highly academic setting of Oxford for a little murder and psychological drama among the dons. The story centers on Marion Manning, an Oxford scholar who has been successful in more than one field--most recently anthropology, which she gave up after the unexpected death of her husband. Also central to the plot are her spiteful charwoman, Joyo Beaufort, and her friends Ezra Barton (a ``perpetual scholar''), his girlfriend Rachel (who comes from a family of dotty academics), and her gossipy neighbor, Major Nickols.

The action begins when "The Watcher" as Dr. Manning calls him shows up. He doesn't approach her; he doesn't ever do anything overtly threatening. He's just always there. Standing outside her house...watching. Appearing at her lectures...watching. Following her to the train station...watching. Ezra and Rachel tell her she should report him to the police, but she says they'll only think her a silly woman. Because the man hasn't done anything. Then he gets inside her house and there's a death. Only it isn't Dr. Manning who dies...but the man. Dr. Manning insists that she didn't stab him in the back with a knife and that no one else had been in her house. If she didn't kill him, then who did? And who was this mystery man who was dogging her every step?

Enter Inspector Coffin who is hunting for a missing person who finds that his search is somehow tied to Marion Manning's problem. When various people close to Dr. Manning are hospitalized for poisoning, he begins to wonder what forces are at work in the scholarly community. The attacks seem to be aimed at Dr. Manning, will Coffin be able to unravel the mystery and save her....and her friends?

This is an odd little book. It wins points with me for the unexpected academic ties (I bought this one blind--it had no dust jacket and I grabbed it up because it was a U.S. first edition of an author I was familiar with). There are some apt descriptions of the scholarly life and we all know how I love mysteries with an academic twist to them. But the academic points don't quite balance out the odd psychological feel of the book. The first half to two-thirds (without Coffin, I might add) are pretty dismal and full of a sense of impending doom. We all know that something is going to happen to Dr. Manning--but what? And then when it does, it's kind of anti-climatic because it doesn't actually happen to her. The final psychological twist is a bit of a let-down as well. Most likely because I've already read the classic rendering of this particular twist by....well, I can't tell you because that would give it all away. Let me just say that author X used it in such a masterful way that anyone else is bound to seem second-rate in comparison. I will give Butler kudos for keeping the possibility of the twist hidden as long as she did--the twist itself was a surprise to me even if not used to full effect. The other drawback, in my opinion, is that Coffin doesn't show up until the book is nearly two-thirds done. Knowing that this was supposed to be an Inspector Coffin case, I kept waiting for him to appear.  ★★ for the academic connection, as well as for interesting characters and relationships.

This fulfills the "Published Under More Than One Title" square on the Silver Vintage Bingo card.

He and Ezra swopped detective stories. have you read Ransome's latest? Pretty good you know. What about the new Punshon? No Daly for a long time. Is she dead? And the new Innes? Not up to standard. (p. 47)

"My ideal university," said the Professor dreamily, "would be one without any undergraduates in it. A quiet, scholarly, happy world where one need never see a young face again." (p. 66)

Ezra...was sitting at his work-table contemplating the whole corpus of his thesis spread out in nicely typewritten sheets before him; behind were arrayed row upon row of books, authorities he had consulted, would consult, and hoped to consult; Ezra was a slow quiet ruminative worker, chewing over his thoughts as contented as a cow. Morning was just as likely to discover him, still one shoe on and one shoe off, having written two words, crossed out three, and discovered some fifty books that must be consulted before he wrote another one.... (p. 86)

He was not a great believer in coincidences. In his own work, where they occurred, they were usually the result of an error, and however they started out they usually ended in a trap. (p. 91)

1 comment:

fredamans said...

I'm curious why they changed the title... Great review!