Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Title Is Murder: Review

A killing spree at the bookstore! Who would have thought there would be more blood than ink in the fiction section? Hugh Lawrence Nelson shows us what murderous fiends bookworms and book dealers can be in The Title Is Murder (1947). Braxton's is San Francisco's most exclusive bookstore.

From the sidewalk, the neat gold lettering of the one word BRAXTON'S on the sparkling windows, the small display instead of the pile-type of window trimming, told of exclusiveness. A small, mirrored foyer with a single table holding a large vase of flowers and one book, continued he impression.

Women in furs come to buy presents for their nieces and nephews--assured that the staff at Braxton's will know just the right book. And, of course, they want the books gift wrapped and emblazoned with the Braxton sticker (to emphasize how exclusively the niece or nephew has been thought of). What customers of Braxton's don't expect is to find their favorite bookstore closed off, inundated with policemen and and Mr. Braxton himself dead at his desk...

He had slumped forward, face down on the desk as if pillowing his head on his right arm. A stained, hook-bladed knife lay a few inches from his bloody fingers. 

Mr. Braxton has a bloody gash in his throat to match the stained knife and fingers.

A strange way to commit suicide and it doesn't take Detective Lieutenant Stephen Johnson long to discover that there are plenty of people who might have had a deadly grudge against the bookstore owner. Braxton's office was in a balcony overlooking the sales floor and he was quick to spot any infraction of the many rules of his domain or any disruption in the enforced harmony among his employees. Offenders would quickly receive a sarcastic note...or in extreme cases be called to the upper level for a "conference."

Nan Hunter, of the fiction department, is the most recent staff member to be summoned into the presence. Her conference results in her quitting, but Braxton refuses to accept her notice. Personal history--she was once engaged to his son, now deceased--ties her too firmly to Braxton and she leaves the office (after hours) in a distraught frame of mind. She is the last person known to have seen Braxton before his body is discovered. There are those who are eager to believe that Nan is the killer--or at least are eager for the police to think so.  Malice and rivalries--both personal and professional--had many of the staff from the nonfiction buyer to floor saleswomen to stockroom workers ready to shift the blame and keep the police from investigating them too closely.

The difficulty for Johnson is that so many of them have alibis and Nan Hunter doesn't. He's sure that she's innocent but he's going to have to break an alibi or two if he's going to prove it. Otherwise, his chief is going to expect him to arrest the most likely suspect....

While this is a delightful second-tier mystery from the 1940s, it is understandable why Hugh Lawrence Nelson isn't as well-known as Agatha Christie or John Dickson Carr or many others from the period. The clues aren't exactly thick on the ground and the plotting isn't as tight as one of the masters of the genre. Given the number of bodies that pile up, it becomes more a matter of process of elimination more then deductive reasoning on the part of the reader. But Nelson knows his way around the book world and gives us a good view of an exclusive bookshop from the 40s. Good characterizations and light romance help balance the story and it makes for an enjoyable evening's read. There are six more books in the Lt. Johnson series (this is the debut) and I will certainly keep my eye out for more. ★★ and 3/4.

[Finished on 9/5/17]
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This fulfills the "Book" category on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.


1 comment:

Kate said...

Shame the cluing wasn't so strong, but I absolutely love the sound of the setting.