Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Tombstone
Joan Coggins is one of the Golden Age’s less well known mystery writers, but in the 1940s she wrote a quartet of novels featuring serial sleuth Lady Lupin, who may appear silly and foolish (mainly because she is adept at talking at cross purposes with others), but in fact has a strong intuitive understanding of those around her which helps her to unravel the mysteries she inevitably gets mixed up in. These novels are situated within the comic crime subgenre, with Lady Lupin being incongruously but happily married to a vicar, but I would argue that the last two novels in the series are more serious and that Lady Lupin matures within them. The other three novels in the series are Who Killed the Curate? (1944), The Mystery at Orchard House (1946) and Why Did She Die? (1946). Since Dancing with Death (1947) is published in 1947 I am also submitting this review for Past Offence’s Crimes of the Century Challenge.
Dancing with Death is set at Christmas and New Years and begins with Lady Lupin rushing off to her best friend Mrs Lethbridge, known as Duds, who has telegrammed saying she is in great trouble. Based on an earlier letter by Duds, Lady Lupin conjurors up a scenario where Duds’ husband Tommy has murdered one of their Christmas holiday house guests, Henry Dumbleton, due to Duds past relations with him. From the outset Lady Lupin’s chaotic approach to life is evident and one can’t imagine how she would cope without her maid, Staines to sort everything out for her.
Something I had not predicted occurring in this novel was the attention given to the effect of war and peace on the characters, as this novel is set contemporary to the time it was published. Many of the characters are still being effected by their roles in WW2 and there are still experiences such as rationing to be put up with. This theme is interwoven into the plot from early on in the novel when the narrative goes back in time to the start of Duds’ Christmas week with her house guests. For example when Duds and Tommy are introduced, their war experiences are immediately brought up:
‘The war years had told on her. She had had a job at the Admiralty while he had been at sea on a minesweeper, and it was the separation and the anxiety about each other that had git them down… In nineteen thirty-nine they were still in their twenties, living a carefree, hand to mouth existence. Now they were halfway through the thirties and felt themselves older than their years.’
Moreover, there is a real nostalgic desire on Duds’ part to return to the years before the war, yet it is her younger cousin who points out the foolishness of this saying that, ‘The old world has gone and, it is no use trying to pretend to bring it back again.’
Duds has high hopes for her Christmas party and she has invited her twin cousins, Jo and Flo, as well Flo’s husband Gordon, and there is also Tommy’s cousin Sandy. Henry Dumbleton and his second wife Irene are also present, having taken Dud up on her insincere offer of a visit. Many years previously Duds had a brief flirtation with Henry, despite him being married, but ultimately she found it to an unrewarding relationship and moved on. However, this is not a happy house party as Henry is supercilious and arrogant and Jo who has drifted apart from Flo in looks and friendship is acting stuck up and spoilt, but is this due to a romantic failure? Sandy is also moody and sulky and spends a lot of his time drinking, but is this due to Flo or his wartime experiences in a prison of war camp? The fact Flo has inherited a lot of money from her grandfather also seems to have divided her from her sister, despite her willingness to half it with Jo. All in all this is a difficult and tense holiday with Duds regretting it bitterly. This awkward party continues up to New Year’s Eve which adds to Duds’ woes when she sees her husband going into the box room with Jo. Surely there can’t be an innocent reason for this? Yet worse is to follow when during the night it seems one of the guests has committed suicide using diamorphine (medication asthma sufferers used).
Into this chaos enters Lady Lupin in her usual muddleheaded fashion picking every wrong end of the stick as to who has died and how and who is responsible and this is an enjoyable comic episode in the novel. The inquest may have given a verdict of suicide but it seems Lady Lupin is not the only one to suspect foul play, which as the other guests divulge information seems more and more likely. Lady Lupin’s style of investigation is not linear or organised and often it takes her several goes at unravelling the truth behind another character’s remarks, especially in regards to who the other person is referring to. This is certainly the case when the characters are discussing the potential flirtations of the victim. Hints of blackmail and the surprise introduction of weed killer adds further dimensions to the case. Although Lady Lupin’s detecting style is maverick to the say the least, I think it fits her character well and as a vicar’s wife it as natural as an elderly woman like Miss Marple, for Lady Lupin to pick up information through conversations. Association of words and ideas also play a big part in Lady Lupin’s investigative work. Mr Borden sums up Lady Lupin’s detecting style well when he says:
‘All the same, she has a brain – or is it mere intuition? She jumps to things that it would take the rest of us, even those of us who imagine we’ve trained minds, a long time, if ever, to reach. I suppose it is her tremendous interest in her fellow creatures that helps her to see things that are dark to others.’
The last part of his summing up for me forged another link between Lady Lupin and Miss Marple as both have a keen interest in the people around them, though I think Miss Marple is a much sharper and intelligent person. But also like Miss Marple, Lady Lupin will sometimes make judgements about people based on other people she knows such as when she ‘suddenly remembered of whom it was that Mrs Dumbleton reminded her: Mrs White of the village shop.’
Additionally, I think there are definitely parts of this novel which fit with the comedy of manners genre as there are a whole rack of misunderstandings, some of which Lady Lupin resolves and some which she creates. In regards to the former, one of these misunderstandings is between Duds and Tommy and Lady Lupin’s approach is a direct one:
‘Now look here, you two, it is no use expecting me to behave in a reticent, well-bred way. Whatever I may have been before, I have been a clergyman’s wife for ten years and interfering is my job. What is the matter with you?’
Again this example also ties into how Lady Lupin works well as an amateur sleuth, because like an old lady, characters are less bothered by her being nosey or interfering because it is assumed to be part of her role as a vicar’s wife.
The ending of this novel is brilliant with an excellent twist which I did not see coming and it was a satisfying conclusion to an enjoyable four novels. There is definitely part of me which wishes that Coggin had written more mystery novels, as I think Lady Lupin is a first rate character. Overall Coggins is strong at creating interesting characters and plots, with an engaging narrative voice. What’s not to love? Moreover, I have found it interesting how in the first two novels the overall tone is very light hearted and humorous and Lady Lupin is much more ditzy, yet in the last two novels which see Lady Lupin increase in age she matures as a character and these novels in their style are more than just comic. This is certainly a series I would recommend to everyone.