Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Avenging Parrot: Review

John over at Pretty Sinister Books first brought Anne Austin* to my attention with his terrific review of One Drop of Blood. At the time I thought I might read Murder at Bridge (available through Project Gutenberg, but I'm such a book in hand kind of girl that I never got round to it. Instead, I picked up a lovely hardback edition of The Avenging Parrot (1930) at last year's Red Cross Book Sale.

From researches online, it appears that Parrot is the second of Austin's mysteries. However, the novel reads as if it were the very first of the James "Bonnie" Dundee series. Bonnie got his name from "a sentimental lass he lost his heart to in high school [who] found a Rab Burns poem called 'Bonnie Dundee' and made him a present of the nickname." It stuck. The book opens with Dundee arriving in the office of his uncle Police Commissioner O'Brien in Hamilton (Midwest, USA**) fresh from a six-month stint with Scotland Yard, as a records officer. [Perhaps the first novel, The Black Pigeon, takes place in London?] Dundee is determined to make a name for himself as a detective. But Lieutenant Strawn, O'Brien's best detective is none too sure about the new man, particularly when he finds out Bonnie's been to college and spent his time "reading everything on criminology [he] could lay his hands on."

Hmm! A story-book detective. I'm afraid you're going to be disappointed in Hamilton as a crime center, Dundee. Offhand, I can't recall a single case where a rich old man was found dead in his library, a carved dagger in his heart, and doors and windows barred. And so far as I know, there's not a single house in all Hamilton with a secret passage--

Dundee will have to work hard to impress Strawn and Sergeant Turner, a seasoned officer who resents the nephew's status, and refute any talk of nepotism.

He gets his first chance when O'Brien's secretary brings in a "crank" letter. Old Mrs. Hogarth writes from the Rhodes House, a local boarding house, praising O'Brien for a recent speech in which he said that "crime prevention is of even greater importance than crime detection." Mrs. Hogarth challenges him to put his belief to the test by preventing her murder. Neither O'Brien nor Strawn are prepared to take her seriously, but after rereading the letter, Dundee asks to be allowed to go under cover as a boarder and investigate the old lady's claims.

He settles into his new lodgings that very afternoon and soon discovers that the woman has stirred up plenty of reasons for folks to plot her death. Rumored to have a miser's hoard stashed somewhere in her room, Mrs. Hogarth has fastened on each of her fellow-boarders in turn, making the current favorite her heir in an ever-changing will. As soon as the blue-eyed boy or girl upsets her, she chooses a new favorite and makes them the heir. And Mrs. Hogarth isn't the easiest woman to play favorite for. She expects little presents and constant attention since she isn't well enough to venture far from her room on the second floor.

After meeting all the inmates at dinner that first night--from the current heiress, a lovely girl by the name of Norma Paige, and her fiance (and previous favorite) Walter Styles to the pompous businessman Lawrence Sharp and his wife to Cora Baker, pianist for the local picture show as well as another previous favorite, to Bert Mangus, Cora's admirer, to Henry Dowd, a mystery man whose former employer seems to have gone out of busines,s to various other hangers on and possible candidates for heir or heiress of the week--Dundee tries to have a private talk with Mrs. Hogarth to let her know a detective is on the job. However, the other residents keep popping in and out and he has no chance for an in-depth discussion. He decides to go for a walk--and report his initial impressions to Strawn--and plans to visit the older woman when he returns.

Somebody decides they've had enough of Mrs. Hogarth--whether it's because of the revolving will and the rumored hoard or another reason yet to be discovered. When Dundee visits her room the second time, he receives no answer to his knock and finds the door unlocked. Mrs. Hogarth in her fear of murderers had been scrupulous in locking her door when visitors left. He enters the room and finds Mrs. Hogarth strangled with her own scarf and her room ransacked. Did the murderer find what he or she was looking for? The only eye witness to the cold-blooded crime was her pet parrot. Dundee is convinced that bird's squawking has a clue to the murderer's identity, but O'Brien and Strawn thinks it only wishful thinking. How Dundee used the avenging bird and a handful of clues found amongst trash and other bits and pieces to solve the murder makes for an absorbing read.

This is a lovely Golden Age mystery with clues fairly planted and the opportunity for the reader to solve the mystery before Dundee breaks the case. A handy map is also provided as so often happens in the books of this period. Dundee is an appealing young detective. He's sure of his ability to make a detective of himself, but not so cocky as to alienate the reader (or his colleagues...too much). He makes some mistakes and works hard to find the right answers as well as trying to smooth the ruffled feathers of the more experienced officers. The solution may be a little more obvious to modern readers, but I suspect it may have proved a bit of a puzzle for Austin's contemporaries. Dundee's fellow boarders are given enough attention to round out their characters fairly well for the time period. ★★★★

*From Amazon: Born in 1895, Anne Austin began by writing romance novels about young women in the mid 1920's but soon turned her talents to producing a string of mysteries through the 1930's, some of which appeared as serials in newspapers.. Many of these mysteries feature as the detective “Bonnie” Dundee, Special Investigator for the District Attorney, including Murder Backstairs, The Avenging Parrot, Murder at Bridge, and One Drop of Blood. Several of her mysteries were translated into French, including Le Pigeon Noir and Le Crime Parfume. Despite her success as a novelist, Anne Austin disappears from the public record after the 1930's.  Amazon lists Murder Backstairs as an available reprint from Resurrected Press

**John has made an argument for somewhere in Michigan based on references in One Drop of Blood to the Eastern time zone and five hour train ride from Chicago. After a discussion with him, I'm plumping for Iowa based on all the references in The Avenging Parrot to various Iowa towns which seem to be "near by." I'm banking on the fact that Austin changed the location at some point in her books (sort of like Dr. Watson's moving wound from Afghanistan and various chronological issues in the Holmes stories) and am going to claim this for Iowa in the Reading Road Trip Challenge.


LuAnn @ BackPorchervations said...

I enjoyed your review of this book. It's nice to know books from 'yesteryear' are still being read. Just put it on my GR TBR.

fredamans said...

I have to wonder if Anne Austin and Jane are related... so odd they are in the same field too. This could be just a daydream though, on my part. :-)
Great review!

Bev Hankins said...

different spellings of the last name, if so, Freda. :-)

Anonymous said...

Must admit, the title alone sounds great! So glad to hear it's a good one - thanks bev.