Saturday, December 8, 2018

Reprint of the Year: Death's Old Sweet Song

Kate at Cross Examining Crime has come up with another of her frequent brilliant brainstorms. Various publishing houses have gotten wise to the virtues of Golden Age and more recent vintage crime novels and have been producing reprint editions of both well-known and more obscure titles in the hopes of getting them into the hands of the mystery-reading public. Kate thought it would be a great idea for some of us who love those vintage mysteries to feature novels which have been reprinted in 2018 and to make a pitch for our favorites to be voted Reprint of the Year.  [For Kate's full idea, see her blog link above.]

So, this Saturday and next, I and my illustrious colleagues Aidan, Brad, Curtis, Daniel, JJ, John, Kate, Moira, and the Puzzle Doctor will feature titles and make our best bid at Reprint stardom for our choices.  My first selection, Death's Old Sweet Song by Jonathan Stagge, has been re-released by the Mysterious Press/ Open Road. This was the very first novel I ever found and read by Stagge (Hugh Wheeler and Richard Webb) back when my blog was very young and green (Green as the "Green Grow the Rushes-O" of the title's song) and my reviewing skills were meager indeed. When I
found a lovely dust-jacketed copy several years later, I intended to return to it and give it the attention it deserved...but, well, having this habit of buying books faster than I can read them makes the new TBR piles push the already read books further and further down the list. So, I'm excited that Kate's suggestion allowed me to finally revisit it.

The Stagge novel uses a familiar ploy of vintage mysteries--a song or rhyme being used as a framework for a murderer's dark entertainment. Christie, of course, used it--most famously in And Then There Were None with the less-politically correct version and then the rhymes that slowly eliminated Indians and soldiers, one by one. Stagge uses an old English ballad title "Green Grow the Rushes-O" whose pertinent lines run as follows:

Six for the Six Proud Walkers
Five for the Symbols At  Your Door
And Four for the Gospel Makers
Three, Three The Rivals
Two, Two The Lily White Boys Clothed All In Green-o
One Is One and All Alone and Ever More shall Be-o

It all takes place a small town in the Massachusetts Berkshires where Dr. Westlake and his daughter Dawn have gone for a little vacation--"a nice quiet time." However, over the course of just a few days, that nice quiet time will turn into murder and mayhem with six murders rapidly following one another and all following along the lines of the song. The murders begin with the two lily white boys--twin terrors who may be naughty little boys, but who on earth murders children just for being naughty? It immediately becomes clear that it's more than someone who couldn't take the boys' behavior when other murder follow with victims who match the English ballad. Dr. Westlake and his friend Inspector Cobb have a great deal of work ahead of them to find the killer before he or she works their way through the rest of the song.

The Stagge novels which I've read are probably my favorite iteration of the various combinations of Wheeler/Webb and Martha Mott Kelley and Mary Louise White Aswell (under the pen names of Stagge, Patrick Quentin, and Q. Patrick). I find the characterizations to be more interesting and the small town atmosphere has given them a kinship with British village mysteries. And, as far as this particular novel goes, I always find it interesting when an author uses an old song or poem or nursery rhyme to set up a string of murders. The question, as always is, do we have a lunatic on our hands who just happened to go batty with this song in his head and now just "has" to go out and kill people to suit the song...or do we have a perfectly sane villain who is trying to make the police think he's mad while he bumps off the key victim in the midst of the red herrings? Generally speaking, it's usually the latter--but it's a good writer who can keep you guessing.

Stagge did a very good job at keeping me guessing right till the end the first time I read it. I had my theory but (looking back at my previous review) I still wasn't certain at page 182 of 239. Of course, on my reread I remembered the answer to that particular puzzle. BUT--and
reprint cover
here is where I make my special plea on behalf of this reprint--it had been long enough since I read this that I wasn't sure who did it. Stagge fooled me the first time round and almost pulled it off again. I was still waffling on who did it right until just before the final reveal. That's a pretty good feat when you consider that by the last chapter and half or so we were pretty short on possible suspects. That's as close as anyone has ever gotten to Christie's ability at confusing the issues. If it's been long enough on any except the "big" Christie mysteries (you know, the ones where it's unlikely that anyone would ever forget the solution...Orient Express, And Then There Were None, Ackroyd, etc), then Christie often can fool me all over again. She's that good--or my mind is just like a sieve, but I prefer to praise Christie. I figure anyone who comes within a mile of her ability at fooling this reader deserves a shot at Reprint of the Year. 

Curtis over at The Passing Tramp has also said nice things about this Stagge book. Be sure and check out his thoughts as well. To check out other nominations for the Reprint of the Year Award, please see Kate's nomination and round-up post HERE.

Spoiler (to read the spoiler which explains what category of the Just the Facts challenge this fulfills, you may highlight the apparently blank space): This book meets the Just the Facts Category "Timing of Crime is Crucial. Arranging the order of the killings was meant to disguise the importance of one particular victim.


Kate said...

Got myself initially confused as I muddled Stagge with John Stephen Strange (I knew the initials were JS!). But thankfully your post set me to rights and this one definitely sounds intriguing, in terms of the nursery rhyme element and the serial killings. I have the feeling the Reprint awards could be deadly to my TBR pile!

Clothes In Books said...

This sounds excellent, and a very cogent explanation of how the best murder stories work! I can never keep track of the different stages of this/these writers' careers: I don't think I've read anything under the Stagge name.

Ken B said...

I have the 3 Stagges that are in Kindle queued up, probably for next month. Is this the second? I am glad to hear it’s good.

Bev Hankins said...

Ken, this is actually the 8th out of nine Stagge books with Dr. Westlake.

Ken B said...

Interesting. I wonder why they reprint the last three first. I am particularly looking forward to these.

The Passing Tramp said...

I love this book, though it turned out to be controversial. I normally don't get so many blog comments, but it turns out two of my esteemed fellow bloggers rather had issues with it! We had quite the back and forth. Glad you're a fan of it!

Bev Hankins said...

Curtis: Yeah, I saw the controversy on your post. I think the book is great fun.

Ken B said...

I finished this today, my sixth QPQ. I think I liked it the best so far. The mystery is not dazzling but it’s efficiently done. It's the feel of the book that works so well: a nice irony in the portrait of the ‘quality’ in the village, a bit of soap opera, the pressure getting to people, and Westlake and his daughter. Not a brilliant book, but a good strong read. Highly recommended.