Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Statue
Murder Loves Company (1940) by John Mersereau is another detective novel which Rue Morgue Press redeemed from obscurity and Mersereau was certainly a new author for me. What drew me to this novel was its’ unusual choice of setting which was the San Francisco World Fair (1939) which was also known as the Golden Gate Exposition. Mersereau is not the only writer to set a detective novel at a world fair as Phoebe Atwood Taylor, under the pseudonym of Freeman Dana wrote Murder at the New York World’s Fair (1938). Although the introduction to my book suggests that this is not one of Taylor’s strongest works and that neither these novels nor the fairs they were set at were ultimately commercially profitable. Mersereau’s writing career began in the pulp magazines and he also wrote a couple of adventure novels which were made into films in the 1920s. During WW2 he was in the Navy and he edited the Navy recruitment magazine. Interestingly a house move after the war led to him and his family becoming friends with Margaret and Kenneth Miller, though he never had the writing success that they did. Despite his best efforts Mersereau’s writing career ended a few years after the war as he found there was no market for his work, especially since the pulp magazines were no longer as popular. However, he and his family did move around a lot even living in Mexico for a time and I found it interesting that throughout his life a number of the houses he and his family lived in were built with his own hands.
Murder Loves Company begins with Professor James Yeats Biddle, a specialist in horticulture and who is the youngest professor teaching at Berkeley. He has a sports car which he has named Xantippe, which is also the name of Socrates’ wife and this little element reminded me of Edmund Crispin’s amateur sleuth, Gervase Fen. Although it seems there is going to be a new and far more perturbing woman in Biddle’s life as he has to give a young female reporter, Kay Ritchie, a lift to the talk he is going to give on his involvement in the flora and fauna planted at the World Fair. Biddle is less than pleased getting quickly exasperated and annoyed with her. The evening does not get any better when they barely avoid being hit in a car crash while crossing San Francisco’s Bay Bridge. The car Biddle narrowly avoids does crash and both the driver and passenger, two Japanese garden labourers, die. However, this is no ordinary crash as it is soon apparent that one of the bodies is cold, whilst the other is warm. Was the driver a murderer transporting a corpse? Biddle is not so sure when he sees a particular item in their car and his suspicions are reinforced when it turns out that the driver had been poisoned by cyanide gas. But how was the car driven?
Ritchie is keen to get involved and do some exploring of her own, saying ‘If I were a detective I’d want to solve baffling murders. Only baffling ones.’ Biddle is very sceptical of this point of view initially but as his feelings for Ritchie deepen, the more avid an amateur sleuth he becomes. However, investigating this case won’t be easy as corruption and monetary influence impact what Biddle and Inspector Angus MacDuff can do and prove and it is even suggested that one of the characters was able to suppress a news story about themselves. It doesn’t help that some witnesses aren’t telling the truth. Yet, it seems the olive trees, Biddle’s prize plants at the World Fair. and their original owners are somehow involved and this is confirmed when someone starts killing off some of the trees. Added into this already puzzling affair is a Russian princess and her suspicious manager, who enter the story when a valuable ikon is stolen from her.
Once bitten with the detecting bug it is hard to stop Biddle from getting involved in the investigation, with half his mind hoping his efforts will impress Ritchie. But has he bitten off more than he can chew? As the novel progresses the body count does rise and many attempts are made at removing Biddle from his detecting endeavours; threatening letters, newspaper embarrassments and verbal warnings. However will those involved tire of such paltry methods and go for a more permanent solution?
Gender and Romance
Looking at the romance between Ritchie and Biddle overall, I am reminded of the film Bringing Up Baby (1938) which starred Carey Grant as a scientist called David Huxley and Katharine Hepburn as Susan Vance, a woman with a pet leopard who whirlwinds in to Huxley’s life and turns it completely upset down as romance between them blossoms. Ritchie has a similar effect on Biddle, though Ritchie is much more competent and capable than Susan Vance. Like Huxley, Biddle acts rather awkwardly around Ritchie and initially is actually quite annoyed by her. However this soon dissipates as:
‘the professor warmed to her in spite of himself. On general principles he was suspicious of women, especially women in business. And of all women in business he was most suspicious of women in the business of reporting. But this one seemed different. She was a human being, one like himself, or at least as he fancied himself, a person of intelligence.’
Thankfully these sorts of passages are very infrequent in the novel as I’m not sure I could have coped with such condescension otherwise. However, also like Huxley, Biddle’s life is definitely turned upside down by the appearance of Ritchie, leading him to forget to go to classes, to become drunk and to even stop caring after his prized tomato plants (shock horror!) Her youthfulness and childishness is something Biddle often likes to suggest in his language concerning her:
‘Why did you ever choose to become a girl reporter?’
‘I’m not a girl reporter… I’m a newspaper woman.’
And this is something which feeds into the novel’s overall depiction of gender roles, which is unsurprisingly fairly traditional, despite Ritchie being a working woman. Inspector MacDuff suggesting that the ‘trouble is that kid [Ritchie] ought to be married, she ought to have something to keep her good and busy. A baby, that’s what she needs. Why, she needs twins!’ Furthermore, I noticed as the story progressed, Ritchie began to have a much smaller role in the detective work and that she became much less independent, saying things like ‘It’s fun to be bossed,’ as she acquiesces to Biddle’s restraining influence and even cooks him dinner. In addition, as their relationship develops Biddle is keen to hold on to the knowledge he discovers about the case so he can then reveal it in a dramatic way. I think he does this so he can fulfil the heroic role, as he is never going to impress Ritchie with his physical prowess, so instead he sticks to his strengths which is knowledge and information. Although interestingly there are a number of points where Biddle is fearful for Ritchie’s safety yet these fears are shown to be unfounded, which suggests in a small way that Ritchie sidesteps one of the tropes of being a fictional heroine, of needing rescuing all the time.
I was impressed how Mersereau brings all of these quite unusual case elements into one unified whole, although I do think he could have paced the solution at the end a little more, as it did feel a little crammed when Biddle in true Golden Age style addresses all the suspects on a boat. I also found it an interesting change that the victims in this novel are not high profile figures or dictating family patriarchs, which is often the case in detective novels from this time period. Biddle is an engaging character, though I do think his confidence levels could be dropped down a peg or two. He might not have physical prowess, but Biddle throughout the story prides himself on his intelligence, even seeing Insector MacDuff as the typical fictional dumb detective. His love issues may annoy some readers but I think Mersereau have dealt with this aspect well and it is nice to see Biddle disconcerted. The narrative style is good and this is definitely a story with lots of action. I also felt the choice of setting and the crime scenario quite unusual and in themselves worth reading the book for.