‘Who killed Blythe is not really very important… the important thing is… other people suspecting the wrong murderer…’
Delano Ames’ Jane and Dagobert Brown series has always been a favourite of mine and after quite a saga I have finally managed to get a copy of the fourth in the series: Death of a Fellow Traveller (1950). Jane and Dagobert are not your usual bright young things detecting couple and have much more engaging and developed personalities in comparison to say Richard and Francis Lockridge’s detecting couple Mr and Mrs North. I would recommend starting with the first book in this series; She Shall Have Murder (1948), as it helps to set up the two amateur sleuths, who are not married yet and explains Jane’s writing career which begins after a murder occurs in her then workplace. Dagobert is also established as a wonderfully maverick, yet believable character, who eschews regular work and prefers random research or article writing jobs on topics as abstract as 15th or 16th century writers or musicians or the Mayan Civilisation. Another advantage with starting with the first book is that it reasonably cheap and quite easy to get a hold of, which is the same for the second and third novels in the series, Murder Begins At Home (1949) and Corpse Diplomatique (1950).
But if you are lucky enough to find a copy of the 4th book the story does open in a way which can familiarise the new reader to an extent, beginning with Jane describing in a humorous manner the difficulties of starting a novel:
‘There is always a great deal of fuss in the family before I start a book. The situation briefly is this:
a) I am not a novelist – which may seem a discouraging admission to make at the offset.
b) I believe a woman’s place is in the home – at least until six o’clock in the evening
c) I can never think of anything to write about’
The novel then continues to introduce Dagobert, who actually dismisses her second reason and as to the last reason his suggestion is:
‘What we want… is somebody to get killed. We could easily spare some of your friends.’
Since none of their friends are going to oblige, Dagobert instead follows a wild flight of fancy concerning their next door neighbours the Ramsbottoms, conjuring up scenarios where they either murder each other or are really spies, even roping in a friend of theirs, who happens to be visiting them at the time. As a man who rushes from hobby to hobby, interest to interest, very much like Toad in Kenneth Grahame’s Wind the Willows (1908); (Janes designates them as separate time periods), Dagobert begins a new passion in espionage reading up on Uranium 235 and Cryptography. After a couple of weeks of trying to find spies in Soho, Dagobert’s interest in spies seems to have waned and he suggests he and Jane go on holiday, even letting Jane stick the pin in the map. Yet used to his ways Jane knows he’s still up to something apart from trying to get her to write the spy thriller he outlined earlier. Is it only coincidence that the place Jane picked is near to a town where a spy was arrested a week earlier?
To Cornwall they go, Gwinks in fact, (doesn’t actually exist but a place called Gweeks does) and it is on the train down that they bump into the visitor of the Ramsbottom’s, Captain Blythe and his two Great Danes, which has a catalytic effect on Dagobert’s fertile imagination, especially when Captain Blythe books into the same inn as them. Yet reality seems to be mirroring imagination when the very next morning, Captain Blythe is found dead in the sea, having fallen from the cliff above the previous night. Did he fall or was he pushed? Is it an accident, suicide or murder? An unsigned suicide letter brought out at the inquest suggests the second option, but Dagobert and increasingly Jane (who is now keen to set pen to paper) is convinced it’s the latter:
‘But my more immediate reaction was that his confession had deprived me of a perfectly good murder story. This undoubtedly selfish reaction will be understood only by fellow writers.’
Having decided its murder the next big question for Jane and Dagobert is whether it is a crime fuelled by espionage intrigue or is much more domestic matter. For example, his sister’s (who lives in the area) handkerchief is discovered at the scene of crime, yet a scrap of paper found in his room at the inn has the numbers 235. Is it referring to a particular type of Uranium? The number of suspects also widens when on the one hand there is an actress and director in the area shooting a spy film, who knew Captain Blythe in Venice, yet seem to know more than they are letting on about their past dealings with him. Whilst on the other hand, as the novel progresses the more unpleasant qualities of Captain Blythe are uncovered, revealing further people with financial and romantically motivated grievances against him. Information comes from a wide variety of sources and it is enjoyable to see despite the bizarre machinations of Dagobert, Jane frequently discovering important information through conversing and confronting several of the female characters involved. With several punch ups, leaving Jane in the nettles patch (ouch), and entertaining moments of bathos with envisaged confrontations not materialising, Jane and Dagobert’s investigations are engaging and light heartedly written. However when the moment finally comes, when the killer is finally discovered, will Dagobert follow the dictates of legal justice and expose the criminal? Only another death will tell, but who be the next victim? This is a case which leaves both light hearted and dark legacies, with Dagobert and Jane returning home with more than they bargained for.
I really enjoyed this book, firstly because the killer is well chosen, yet in true crime fiction fashion is concealed in plain sight and was a surprise to me, but unlike some novels, this criminal was not pulled out of a hat. The reason the killer is so well hidden is partially because the characters, even minor ones are expertly drawn and filled out. In particular I liked how the marriage of Lucy and Marcus (Blythe’s sister and brother in law) is depicted as it is well developed with realistic complexities. With many of the relationships in this novel, an underlying theme is that affection may be deeply rooted, but rarely shown and this is most strongly brought out in the ending of the novel.
However, what makes this such a strong book and series is the dynamic between Jane and Dagobert, which goes beyond the usual detecting couple pattern, which is largely down to Dagobert’s unpredictability:
‘I have been married to Dagobert for nearly two years, and I have never had a dull moment. I could do with a dull moment.’
Frequently within their investigation, Dagobert refrains from telling Jane what he is going to do and is rather a law unto himself and Jane’s reactions to this is entertaining to read, especially when she has to deal with the consequences. Occasionally Jane is a little jealous in the novel when Dagobert takes out the much younger actress to tea, but since the reader knows that as impossible as Dagobert can be, Jane is the only woman for him, these moments are invariably comic. Furthermore, as well as doing her own private investigations, Jane does get her own back a little, not only by being the narrator of the story and therefore having control of the narrative, but by poking fun at him in her role of trying to bring Dagobert down to earth during his more wilder moments of fancy:
‘I might try that trick of ‘reconstructing the crime’.’
‘I’ll play the part of the person who shoves you off the cliff…’
Jane and Dagobert may be no Sherlocks, relying more on being very good at bluffing information out of people, but they are an immensely enjoyable detective duo and are well worth trying. Alas I don’t know if I will be able to get a hold of the next one in the series: The Body On Page One (1951), as the cheapest copy is over £150, so I shall be alternately keeping my eyes peeled and praying someone reprints Delano Ames’ work.