Monday, January 1, 2024

Death, My Darling Daughters

 Death, My Darling Daughters (1945) by Jonathan Stagge (Richard Webb & Hugh Wheeler)

This is the seventh of the mysteries written under the Stagge name--all featuring Dr. Westlake. In this particular installment, Westlake is drawn into the orbit of a powerful family when they return to Kenmore, Massachusetts. The Hilton family boasts a (fictitious) Vice President in its family tree and they have never forgotten it--nor do they allow others to forget how very important and genteel they are. The family comes equipped with the ultra famous research doctor--Dr. George Hilton--and his brother-in-law Dr. Kenton-Oakes, an equally famous British doctor. Not to mention an entourage of brilliant research assistants. Mrs. Lanchester, Hilton's sister, is a domineering woman who insists on her two "dear girls" Rosalind and Perdita maintain the proprieties and work on becoming proper ladies. Which means endlessly practicing their music (which they both hate) and wearing very discreet clothing (when all they really want is to be fashionable and to "enflame men"). Others in the party include Hilton's second wife, a much younger Southern belle who took his fancy while on a trip to Miami; his daughter Helena, who detests her stepmother; and the family's irrepressible Nanny--who considers all of the Hiltons to be her especial charges, whether they are grown or not.

Speaking of grown--it is rather jarring to realize that the "dear girls" are practically of age. They way their mother treats them, you'd think they were still in the schoolroom and wearing braids and knee socks. However (as becomes important later), we find out that if the girls want to come into their inheritance under their grandfather's will, they have to mind their mother and stick close to home until they're thirty (!) or their Uncle George dies--because, obviously, "dear girls" can't be trusted with money at too tender an age. 

When Nanny, who suffers from "spells" has one, Dr. Westlake is called in as the local doctor. He insists that she needs to take it easy for about a week, but the woman nearly has another fit--insisting that if she isn't up and about to keep an eye on everyone that somebody is going to do in her dear Georgie. Westlake doesn't take her seriously....but then there is a death. But Nanny is the one to die when the family and hangers on all go off for a picnic. At first it seems to be an accident with silver polish, but Westlake isn't sure and when certain evidence pops up he definitely suspects foul play. But the doctors are on to a big discovery and Washington is involved and none of the bigwigs want attention drawn to the gathering at Kenmore. However, when another death follows the first there's no way Westlake and the local police inspector are going to ignore another murder. 

This is a very nice country house mystery with an added bit of psychology involved in the denouement. Psychological mysteries aren't my favorite, but Stagge uses it in such a way that makes things interesting without turning the mystery into psychological suspense. I appreciated the jolt we get when the solution is revealed. My least favorite part of the story is Dr. Westake's daughter, Dawn. She's irritating. And why on earth does she think her dad is going to fall head over heels in love with Dr. Lisl Stahl (one of Hilton's assistants)? She seems to think the fact that the woman looks just like one of her experimental rats is going to be a selling point and practically pushes the poor man into the doctor's unsuspecting arms. I really enjoy the mysteries written under the Stagge name, but I do wish Webb & Wheeler had thought giving Westlake a daughter was a bright idea. The only thing she's really good for is to help give Westlake excuses for the being on the spot for detecting and surely we could have come up with a different way to work that out. 

Nicely done with clues provided (and missed by yours truly) and a houseful of suspects. Good reading to begin the New Year. ★★★

First line: Kenmore Valley has never forgotten the fact that it produced a Vice-President of the United States.

It was an expression not of shock or grief but one of startled indignation, as if Death had committed an unpardonable breach of manners by claiming an employee of theirs without first asking their permission (pp. 45-46)

Last line: "This," I said, "is where I came in."


Deaths = four poisoned

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