Thursday, December 8, 2016

Dark Lady: Review

Gilbert "Gib" Fowler heads to a cozy cottage for some peace and quiet so he can finish his graduate thesis in American Literature and then get ready to marry the love of his life. Except the cozy cottage was the scene of a ghastly murder about 80 years ago. It's not haunted exactly, but he can't avoid references to it and it does haunt him in a way. He soon discovers that he's much more interested in what happened to the beautiful, blonde Leslie Saxby after her brother-in-law Deane Saxby was tried and convicted of the bloody death of his wife than the portrait of rural American life found in the works of the turn of the century. 

Deane Saxby was a great literary light of the time period which interests Fowler. That light was extinguished when he was tried and convicted of the murder of his wife. At the time, Saxby was overheard having a terrible row with his wife. Later that afternoon, she is found stabbed to death and Deane Saxby is nowhere to be found. When he is found at the train station, he appears to be shocked at the news of his wife's murder and when charged and brought to trial his first plea is "Not Guilty." But something happened to change his plea and he eventually pleaded guilty to second degree murder. He died of a prolonged illness while serving his life sentence in prison and everyone at the time thought justice had been served. But various bits of evidence just don't seem to add up. Fowler begins reconstructing the events of 1884 through conversations with old timers, newspaper clippings, photographs, and scrapbooks. He examines the murder, the suicide of Deane's brother, the inescapable influence of Leslie Saxby, and Deane's literary stories about the mysterious "Dark Lady" to come up with a different solution to the old crime.

This reminds me of Josephine Tey's A Daughter of Time. Inspector Grant, confined to his bed as he recovers from a broken leg, becomes fascinated with the portrait of Richard III and determines to get to the bottom of the murders of the princes in the tower. Starting with his faith in his ability to read faces, he doesn't believe that Richard was a killer. He uses an American researcher to investigate what records can be found. In Doris Miles Disney's Dark Lady (1960), Fowler becomes transfixed by the portrait of Leslie Saxby. Despite the fact that Deane Saxby was an American writer whose work Fowler admired, it is Leslie Saxby's portrait that draws the young scholar into the story. Fowler is a researcher in his own right, so he is the one who follows the clues laid in the newspaper reports and other materials.

Disney writes an excellent investigative story. It doesn't matter that the murder happened over 80 years prior to the book's present day. The story is fresh and the reader is very interested in what Fowler will discover as he delves into the past. The only thing lacking--from my perspective--was sufficient red herrings and suspects to make the mystery truly mystifying. If you begin with the premise that Deane was innocent, it isn't difficult to figure out the solution given all the events of that day and those which followed. As it is, Disney gives us a good solid ★★ story.

This counts for the "Full Skeleton" category on the Silver Vintage Scavenger Hunt card and it is my first entry in the 1960 edition of Rich's Crimes of Century over at Past Offenses. If you have any 1960 crime fiction hanging out on your shelves, then come join us!


J F Norris said...

Hey! I remember that book cover. Wasn't it used for one of the Vintage Mystery Bingo logos?

I like these "dig into the past to solve a mystery" stories. Might be a bit of Laura inspiration with the transfixed by a painting bit, too.

Bev Hankins said...

John: You are so right. I did use that cover for a round of Vintage Mystery Challenging. I finally got 'round to reading it!

fredamans said...

Sounds good.
What I'm wondering is more about the author. With a name like, Disney, I have to wonder if she was related at all to Walt.