The Golden Box (1942) by Frances Crane

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Painting/ Photograph

The Golden Box

Frances Crane is a new author I found through the brilliant, though sadly no longer operating publisher, the Rue Morgue Press. This is the second novel in Crane’s Patrick (Pat) and Jean Abbott series, although at this point Jean and Pat are not married, not even a definite item, since they have only known each for about a month and Jean is unsure whether Pat is truly interested in her. They first meet in Santa Maria where Jean moved to after her parents died in an accident. Pat is a private investigator who has a hankering for being an artist. However, The Golden Box (1942) takes place in Jean’s home town, Elm Hill, which was a fictionalisation of Crane’s own home town Lawrenceville in Illinois. The book is also set just prior to Pearl Harbour, and there is an underlying tension as to whether America will be going to war or not, as the story does mention the arrival of the Japanese delegates in Washington.

Tom and Enid Schantz concisely and interestingly contextualise this novel pointing out the controversial Thanksgiving date change, the omnipresence of smoking and attitudes to race. It is suggested by relatives that Crane was against prejudice and that ‘she was expelled from Nazi Germany as a journalist for defending Jews.’ So therefore when looking at her depiction of race in the story I think the negative perceptions included are not necessarily endorsed by herself, but are there to reflect society at the time. Although it is noticeable that the only African American characters mentioned are servants and their presence in the novel, though not unimportant, are minimal. It is said in the introduction that the N word (which was used 3 times) in the original text were removed, not due to political correctness but ‘because it might actually give away the killer’s identity,’ which I certainly thought was an original reason for censorship.

The Golden Box begins with Jean returning to her home town as her cousin Margaret (Peg) McCrea telegrammed her about her sick Aunt Sue. Early into her arrival Jean is filled in about the town’s goings on which mainly centre on one family, the Fabian Lakes. The matriarch Claribel rules the roost and the town for that matter, with only Peg being brave enough to resist her. In response to her nominee for new church preacher being vetoed Claribel is making moves to have the Christmas party cancelled, threatening to cut her significant annual donation to the church if it goes ahead. Through Peg we find out more about the Fabian Lakes. Claribel has three young but grown up children, Emma, Claire and Val who she tries to impose her will on. She is particularly harsh to Emma as years earlier she refused to marry a distant relation, Ernest Fabian (who Claribel favours) and instead eloped with someone else. Claribel expresses her displeasure of this by refusing to now help pay the costs for the medical treatment one of Emma’s children needs. Val is also in conflict with her mother as Claribel disapproves of Val’s relationship with Tommy Ross. At the time of Emma’s elopement Ernest also left the town and has only now returned a matter of weeks ago and it seems Claribel is determined he will marry Claire.

Jean stays with Peg, making her next door neighbours with the Fabian Lakes, meaning she is one of the first to hear the dramatic news of Claribel’s death. She is meant to have died of a heart attack but Jean amongst others become suspicious when no one is allowed to view the body and that outside funeral takers were used. The contents of Claribel’s will adds to the local gossip when it seems that her money will be overseen by Ernest until Val turns 40 (in 22 years’ time), when the money will be divided between the three daughters. A Dr Fearheiley also benefits, getting $3000 dollars a year from the will (which was timely considering he had little money) and it is rumoured that he was Claribel’s true love. Being so sure there is more than meets the eye in this death, Jean wires for Pat to take a look into it.

Jean is proved correct when a further death follows, that of Ida Raymond, an African American servant who works at Fabian house. The official opinion, initially at least, is that she committed suicide by hanging. Yet for others such as Peg, Jean and Pat they are sure it is murder, as Ida’s death came suspiciously quickly after Ida had told her relatives (other servants in other households), who in turn told their employers, that she was the first to find Claribel dead, with a big cut above her eye, blood down her face and clutching a golden box, a box which subsequently vanished. Interestingly Peg suggests that Ida’s race is making people be more presumptive and less questioning of her death. In this case suspicion is spread widely over many characters who in true Golden Age fashion are all acting suspiciously, such as Val who is seemingly being kept in her room. Pat also comes across an initialled handkerchief within the noose that hung Ida, which could belong to one of two people. Local gossip centres on one suspect in particular, but as the novel progresses Jean and the reader are left wondering whether prejudice is blinding their judgement.

Relationships and Detective Work

A side issue in the story is Jean wondering whether Pat is the man for her and whether he can provide the sort of lifestyle she wants. Her departure from Elm Hill strongly suggests an independent streak in her, yet there is still part of Jean which hankers after a more luxurious lifestyle. Yet such a lifestyle comes at a price. Jean admires Peg’s home to which Peg replies ‘Nothing like being kept…’ and the security this brings does draw Jean in. But ultimately Jean turns away from this lifestyle, realising perhaps that the ‘pillar to post’ existence Pat will give her is actually the life she wants, or rather that the less luxurious lifestyle won’t matter as long as she is with the man she loves. Though Jean does spend some of the novel trying to figure out the character of that man, as Pat is sometimes beyond what she knows: ‘somehow you knew all about Bill straight off, something you certainly would never say of Patrick Abbot.’

Another thing I noticed was that Jean and Pat are not an equal detecting partnership, in fact Jean’s contributions to the case are not that considerable and it is Pat who solves the case. This differentiates them from other detecting couples such as Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford where Tuppence relishes detective work and is also good at it. This is reflected in Jean’s reluctance to get involved in searching the cook and gardener’s bedroom:

‘I stood near the door and looked around the place, at the moly wallpaper and old ugly iron bed and scuffed dresser and chairs, and shuddered. “I’d hate to touch anything in here… If I were you I’d be one of those detectives that does everything by psychology.”’

Aside from Jean’s squeamishness, her role in the case is also minimised by the fact that Pat doesn’t really take her into his confidence, meaning that when she does try to get involved, Pat gets annoyed as she is acting against their interests: ‘Am I doing this investigation, Jean or you?… You’ll spoil it. Please do let people alone. They’ll reveal themselves… stop asking questions. The wrong one can spoil everything.’ Her ineffectualness is partially because she is acting in the dark and also because she lacks the motivation to follow up all the leads Pat is following. It would be fair to say she is not a particularly enthusiastic sleuth, which comes out in her jealousy towards Claire (who fancies Pat). Pat asks her to sit in the middle of the car, rather than Claire, not out of romantic reasons but because she is not too tall to obstruct his rear view mirror. She responds by thinking, ‘It was another trifle, but it made me feel like nothing but packing, a handy object trailing along to assist the great sleuth…,’ which highlights that she is not keen to be a detecting sidekick.

Overall Thoughts

On the whole I really enjoyed this book as Crane’s narrative style is engaging and the central mystery is well thought out with plenty of clues and suspicious suspects. Moreover, I liked how Crane plays on our assumptions with these clues and the choice of killer was also satisfying. The main characters were well drawn and the investigation is interesting, although I think it would be nice if in later books Jean got more gumption and became a bigger member of the detecting duo. I think it also would have been nice if Crane had developed some of her African American characters more, as they only actively appear in the novel on a handful of occasions and I don’t feel we get a real sense of who they are as people, especially in comparison to the white American characters.

Rating: 4.5/5

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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7 Responses to The Golden Box (1942) by Frances Crane

  1. I do find her books enjoyable and readable, though there is some nitpicking to be done – I think I feel much the same as you do. I would certainly read more about her – though I find Jean’s ‘Silly me, I’m not the detective’ absolutely infuriating – it is even worse in other books.

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    • Thanks for the heads up on Jean, you’ve described her perfectly. Think in small doses I might be able to cope with Jean but I don’t think I could read the stories back to back. It seems quite unusual that Crane didn’t make Jean more keen on detecting, as usually with detecting married duos the enthusiasm for sleuthing is strong in both partners.

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  2. JFW says:

    A very tempting review – thanks for the recommendation. 🙂 How would the puzzle compare to the other Rue Morgue releases: especially Joan Coggin, Delano Ames and Juanita Sheridan?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well I don’t think comedy is a key ingredient in this story so I wouldn’t liken this book to any of the Joan Coggins. I think Jane and Dagobert Brown do the bantering relationship better. And in terms of the investigation Pat does pretty much all the donkey work which contrasts with the Ames and Sheridan duos were both people are involved in the detecting to an extent. I think the puzzle is perhaps more prioritised in this book in contrast to the Coggin ones and is probably closest to Delano Ames’ stories (though much less comic).

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  3. Pingback: Book of the Month: May 2016 | crossexaminingcrime

  4. Pingback: The Turquoise Shop (1941) by Frances Crane | crossexaminingcrime

  5. Pingback: Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt 2016: Wrap Up Post | crossexaminingcrime

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