Saturday, September 2, 2017

Murder Is Served: Review

Professor John Leonard's psychology course has focused on human emotions--how they motivate people; how they can be misused and distorted; how they can fuel psychological disorders. He's expecting the usual run of mediocre final papers on the effects of a particular human emotion on the normal individual--with the bulk of the class writing on love. There are a handful of students from whom he expects very interesting papers indeed--students who have minds that seem to grasp the nuances and intricacies of human psychology. What he doesn't expect is for one of them to write a searing paper full of personal hate.

Who would have thought that the heart of the lovely Peggy Mott could harbor such ugly emotion? But it's right there on the paper for Leonard to see. He's been a psychologist long enough that he knows honest emotion when he sees it and he's quite sure that Peggy Mott is working herself up to kill someone. He's also quite sure that the police won't see a final paper in a college night course as anything like evidence--but he's got to do something about what he knows. What to do? Then he remembers that Mr. Gerald North, the man who published his last psychology book, has managed to get himself involved in several murder investigations. So, he calls up Jerry North to arrange a lunch-time meeting...

....thought of you. Because you know this detective, know about things like this. I tell you, I'm damn serious, North. I want help. Can I come around and talk to you?

He suggests that Jerry (and Pam, who of course comes along for the meeting) should present his story to Lt. Bill Weigand. If nothing else, telling someone about it will make him feel like he's done what he can. Weigand listens to the Norths and while he agrees that the paper was concerning, he confirms what they already knew...that there's nothing in it that he can take action on.

But then Tony Mott, Peggy's playboy husband, is found dead in his office with a steak knife buried in his neck. Mott had recently bought a share of the Restaurant Maillaux, providing a much-needed influx of cash for the exclusive dining spot. André Maillaux, the restaurant's owner and maître d', discovers the body of his new partner when he visits the office to consult him on a few matters (we never do find out what the consultation was supposed to be about). Weigand and Sergeant Mullins are on the case and even without prior knowledge of that revealing essay on hatred, their attention is soon focused on Peggy Mott. Motive? Bypassing base hatred, there's always the piles of cash that Tony Mott has left behind. Opportunity? Peggy was seen entering the office before the earliest possible time of death? Means? How fortuitous that the Restaurant Maillaux had just ordered a new style of steak knife and there happened to be a sample right there on the desk for anybody with a murderous bent to snatch up and use.

There's just one thing preventing Weigand and Mullins from bringing Peggy in for questioning. They can't find her. And the longer Pam North thinks about the situation and all the information that comes to the surface while the police hunt for Mrs. Mott, the more she's convinced that someone is serving Peggy up as the main course on a silver platter, hoping to escape their own just desserts as the true villain of the piece. Meanwhile, Bill Weigand is starting to think so as well and he set a trap that will bring the killer out into the open.

It was amusing to read a Mr. & Mrs. North book where, for most of it, it looks as though Artie O'Malley (Weigand's boss) is finally going to get his way. Bill Weigand is all set to go for the simple, straightforward solution. Those Norths aren't making things all screwy.

"We've wrapped it up," O'Malley said. "Nice going, Bill. Way I'd've done it myself. None of this fancy stuff, no Norths to make it screwy. Quick and simple."

But, of course, when the Norths are in it, you have to know that it won't be straightforward. It won't be that simple. And if Pam North takes a shine to your prime suspect you know that someone else must have done it. 

One thing that I did find a little out of character for Bill Weigand was how harshly he treated Peggy Mott when she's finally brought in for questioning. Generally speaking, Bill's a pretty good guy. There's none of the bright lights and rubber hose treatment about him (not even implied) and yet while he's thinking how shaken Peggy is, while he's thinking "Poor kid" he's pretty harsh with his questioning of her. The approach goes against all previous examples of Bill's treatment of female suspects. Since the book starts out with psychology, I'm going to take a stab at a little armchair analysis and theorize that subconsciously Bill knows he's rushed his conclusions and picked the wrong candidate for the crime and he's taking his frustration at himself out on Peggy. 

The other slight flaw with the book is that once you realize that Peggy must be innocent there really aren't that many suspects to choose from. It's not difficult to pinpoint the killer even if you might not know the precise motive. Fortunately for me, I read the Lockridge books more for atmosphere--you can't beat their descriptions of the 1940s/1950s New York City--and the enjoyable characters. They also have a way with dialogue among people who know each other well. There is an easy, short-hand style to the North's conversations with the Weigands and Mullins that is comfortable and fun. ★★ and a half.

[Finished on 8/30/17]


Published in 1948, this fulfills the "Skeleton" category on Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.

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