Monday, May 9, 2022

The Parchment Key

 So, for one of the prompts in my Vintage Scattergories Reading Challenge, I'm tasked with randomly selecting four books, reading the first line of each and then choosing one of the four to read--based on that first line. Here are the selections:

Toward morning a little breeze came up and, without walking, Vine burrowed feet and shoulders deeper into the sand. (Death Against Venus by Dana Chambers)

The skating pond at Rockefeller Center was crowded. (The Corpse That Walked by Octavus Roy Cohen)

When the taxi crashed on a New York downtown side street, the radio continued playing. "The forces of fascism and nazism are no new and alien thing in this world of ours," a voice declared rather sententiously into the darkness. (The Parchment Key by Stanley Hopkins, Jr. [Blythe Morley])

The dark gray bowl of sky cracked open; light flashed through the fissures, darted down into the tops of distant trees, whitened the roof of a farmhouse on a faraway hill. (Killer Loose! by Genevieve Holden)

[I'm writing this part on May 7--before I've started my chosen book. I don't know which one grabbed your attention, but as the title of this review indicates, I decided to go for The Parchment Key. The first line makes me wonder how important that taxi crash is to the story and also if nazis/fascists (spies?) might play a part. I haven't yet read a synopsis of the book, so I'm going into this blind. We'll see what I think by the time I get to the final page...]

 The setting is World War II-era New York. Lt. Bob Danvers and Private Peter Marrell are stateside for a bit of well-earned leave. But rest and relaxation is not going to be on the cards for these two servicemen. Danvers and his wife have just visited her sister at Cliff End and can't shake off the feeling that something is not quite right at the home of Alice and Martin Stanford. Oh, there was the poisoning of the Stanfords' prize-winning Great Dane, but it was more than that. A sense of unexplained tension that existed before the dog was killed. There's also the fact that Janny Danvers just lost her job at a prominent magazine--for no discernible reason--and has nearly been run over twice. 

Peter Marrell has earned himself a reputation as a bit of an amateur detective. Danvers met Marrell in England and knew that the private would be on leave at the same time as he. He mentioned the fact to Stanfords, which resulted in the Marrells receiving an invitation to visit Cliff End. Martin Stanford would like Marrell to investigate the dog's death and make sure that it doesn't happen again--especially since a big dog show will be held on the Cliff End grounds the next weekend. More disturbing things happen from a fire in the guest room trash can to the destruction of Janny's B.A. diploma to an outbreak of juvenile delinquency. Between those incidents and various others which seem directed at Alice Martin, Marrell has his hands full and he needs to move quickly to prevent another casualty.

Well, it took nearly the whole book, but I finally found out whether the taxi crash was important. One thing I don't understand (and totally missed if it was explained) is: why the key? I understand why the parchment in question was mutilated. But I don't understand why the culprit left a key shape. Pure destruction of the document was the goal and the bits could have been left to make the same point; the key is superfluous. But that's a minor quibble. The main thing that keeps this story from a higher score is the rather haphazard nature of the opening chapters. It takes the narrative a while to settle down--Hopkins doesn't seem to have been as good at offering several viewpoints in advance of the main story line as some authors. (First, the cop on the scene of the taxi accident; then Bob Danvers, then Peter Marrell...). I wasn't sure who was going to be our primary protagonist for a while.

This is one of the few mysteries I've read from the period where the central issues of WWII are very important but which does not involve spies/espionage (yes, that bit from the radio in the first lines is relevant to the story). I enjoyed the way Hopkins worked the themes into the solution (and how relevant some of the discussion is, unfortunately, in more recent years). I also enjoyed Peter Marrell and was glad that he wound up being our detective. He's not your standard amateur detective and one gets the idea that he just might be involved in intelligence work (despite protests to the contrary). From what I've been able to find on the web, this is the second of only two detective novels by Hopkins (Morley) which is unfortunate because I would have been interested in seeing how her technique developed. ★★ and 1/2.

First line (above)

Last line: "Mummy," she said, may I kiss the nice man good night?"


Deaths = 4 (one car accident; one poisoned [Champion Great Dane named: Cliff End Lady]; one pneumonia; one drowned)

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