Thursday, August 4, 2016

Servant's Problem: Review

"My daddy says you're the smartest man there is with a mystery, so I just had to turn you."
"A mystery?" The fire horse smelled smoke.

Servant's Problem (1958) by Veronica Parker Johns is the second (and last novel) to feature Webster Flagg, African American, sixtyish, ex-actor and houseman, as well as a current property owner in one of the nicer sections of town, thanks to a legacy from his employer in the previous book, Murder by Day. He's prepared to settle down to a landlord's life, with "the house chores being done by an able janitor, the financial details managed bey a renting agent, only the joys of landlordship to be his." Then he gets a phone call from the daughter of an old friend. Stella is working as a maid in an elegant East side brownstone. The woman who owns the building has gone on an European trip, subletted the apartments, and odd things are happening. The latest? The subletting residents have changed the locks and she can't get in to do her work. Flagg can't resist a mystery.

He arranges to meet her so they can go to the brownstone together and find out what is going on, but somebody clobbers her just before he arrives. When a shiny new key shows up, Flagg takes Stella's place as "maid" and tries to get the low-down on the mysterious Mr. Atterbury, who has never been seen by his employees and stashes a cowboy suit and out-o-date clothes in a closet, and his three beautiful nieces. There's Julie who seems to be the family's go-fer and who is in love with an ex-convict. And Michelle who owns a cute little tearoom--but is it a front for something a little less respectable. And, of course, there's Pearl who drinks....and talks...too much for her own good.

Between top-secret deliveries and attacks on Michelle's gangster friends--one gets a bullet in the arm and another is roped and tied by a truck-driving cowboy, Flagg knows that anything, even murder, could happen in this "respectable" household. By the way, is there anything buried in the backyard besides the shrubs that Michelle keeps sending the owner's brother to the country to collect and plant? Flagg suspects there just might be....and if he's not careful he might wind up under a bush himself.

There is a lot to like about this one. We have one of the few, if not only, butlers (houseman/etc.) turned amateur detective--turning the whole "the butler did it" motif on its head. We also have one of the earliest African American detectives. And Webster Flagg is a marvelous character--well-defined, intelligent, and interesting and making his way through the white, upper-class world with dignity and charm. There are enough other quirky characters to really make things interesting. The writing is engaging and the plot keeps the reader entertained and turning pages. My only quibble is the mystery--there isn't much of one. It's pretty obvious from the beginning what the nieces (or at least two of the three) are up to. The only real question is if someone did get murdered and, if so, who--but that is treated almost as an after thought and it isn't easily solved by the reader because of a lack of clues. ★★ and 3/4 for a lively, interesting, and engaging story.

If you'd like to read more about Veronica Parker Johns and her mysteries, please stop by John's post from 2014 over at Pretty Sinister Books

This counts for the "Revolver" category on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.


J F Norris said...

Thanks for the link, Bev! I have this and one of her much earlier books (HUSH, GABRIEL) with her first detective Agatha Welch, another in the long line of old lady spinster sleuths. Both unread. Too bad the mystery is so transparent. The one in Webster Flagg's debut was pretty darn good. But I really liked Webster and I'm sure reading his second adventure will be entertaining just for his presence. I'll see if I can get to HUSH, GABRIEL to see how well the mystery plot is in her early period.

Bev Hankins said...

John, you are more than welcome. I would never have known of the book without your earlier post. :-)

fredamans said...

Nothing like a cast of quirky characters! I think I would enjoy this one.