This is my second experience of reading Frances Crane’s work, as last month I reviewed the second novel in the series, The Golden Box (1942). The Turquoise Shop (1941) is the first book in the series (why I read them this way round I do not know, but thankfully it hasn’t affected the reading experience.) It is set in Santa Maria in Mexico. The small town/artist colony this story is set in reminded me of detective novels which are located in insular country English villages. Gossip and knowing other people’s business is rife in both circumstances and in particular I was reminded of the later Miss Marple novels such as A Murder is Announced (1950) or The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962) where the village population is changing. In Crane’s story and in the Miss Marple ones new arrivals to the area can say whatever like about themselves and even take on new identities as there is no one to check up on their past. Equally in The Turquoise Shop, the characters are made up of genuine and fake people, such as the genuine artists and native Mexicans and then the fakes who pose as artists or adopt Mexican fashion to ‘polish… off a dizzy western outfit.’
As in many small enclosed settlements, Santa Maria contains a very domineering and tyrannical character, Mona Brandon, who from her very description is set apart from the rest of the community: ‘In November everyone started turning out in sheepskin coats and high boots, except Mona Brandon, who always dressed up.’ From start to finish in this story, Mona is a highly unlikeable woman, making it a pity she is never bumped off. She is racist and a class snob, selfish to her core and consistently gives barbed comments: ‘I’m going to give your jewellery-stuff as Christmas presents… It looks like junk, but that’s the style now.’ It is only her money and the power that comes with it which enables her to hold onto the position she has in the community. The main gossip at the moment is of murder, as a body is found out in the desert, assumed to be the mysterious Albert Arkwright, that only one person has ever seen, Carmencita, who lived with him. Identification is less clear cut as by the time the police arrived at the body a lot of damage had been caused by animals. It is this ambiguity which allows for the rumour that the corpse was Mona’s husband, Tom who disappeared 3 years ago.
Holidaying in the area is Patrick Abbott, who is meant to be taking a break from private investigating and taking up art. But this does not last for long as Sheriff Trask asks for his help with the murder case, which ends up with more than one corpse, as further people die. There is also evidence of counterfeiting going on, which adds to the complexity of the case. It takes a while for this case to develop and on the whole feels quite slow as suspicion hangs over several characters without new evidence confirming or dismissing it. There is quite a chain of dramatic events at the end of the story, though Jean’s lack of enthusiasm for solving mysteries and her general passivity and stupidity (in regards to common sense) really do take the biscuit and even makes Patrick snap at her.
One of the differences I noted between this book and its’ sequel is that Jean doesn’t come across as nice as she does in second book, as she is not above thinking judgementally of others, though would never say these thoughts to their face. For example, she describes Sonya as a ‘plump, jealous shadow’ (an impression never vindicated by her actions) and Jean goes on to say ‘I never understood Russians very well, which might be why I didn’t care for Sonya. Oh I didn’t say so. When you have a shop in a small artist’s colony like Santa Maria you don’t run around speaking your mind, or pretty soon you wouldn’t have a shop.’ Yet she happily enjoys Sonya’s company later on, which makes her come across a bit two faced. Something else which interested me was how Gilbert Mason describes Jean saying that:
‘You think you’re God, don’t you Jean? You sit in this place and everybody comes in and unloads and after a while you get to thinking that you are divinely ordained to tell us what to do.’
Though looking at the book as a whole, Jean would have to be classed as a very hands off or laisse faire god, as she is far too passive. Moreover, she spends a lot of time going around in circles feeling angry at the injustices which are going on in the area, yet she does nothing about it: ‘Better to forget it, except as a show. Look on. Not get involved. That was the only way.’
Gilbert Mason, who I have already mentioned, was a character who interested me a lot, as he plays an unusual role in the story and he is also a malicious gossiper, overthrowing the fictional stereotypes that gossips are always old women. He is also a character who seems to consist of contradictions, which even Jean perceives when she thinks, ‘It was a funny thing really, that anybody whose mind worked like Gilbert’s should always smell like soap and water.’ The animosity which is growing in the artist colony pleases Gilbert, as he finds it entertaining: ‘Santa Maria isn’t a bad show any time, what with people always scratching and screaming behind other people’s backs.’ It also intrigued me that Gilbert thinks him and Jean are the same, ‘we’re just alike, you and I… we want no part of the messes of Santa Maria. We want merely to sit back, look on and have fun,’ with the phrase ‘look on’ cropping up in Jean’s thoughts later on. By being paralleled with Gilbert, Jean becomes more of an ambiguous character.
Natives vs. Newcomers
The only other mystery novels I have read which involve Mexico are two by Todd Downing and I was interested in how Crane and Downing differ in their approaches to portraying Mexicans and ‘Indians,’ as Downing’s approach has greater verisimilitude in my opinion. Although we are not supposed to agree with Sheriff Trask’s patronising viewpoint that ‘Our Indians… were quiet, but any Indians might commit murder if they thought their religious doings were spied on,’ I don’t think Jean’s thoughts develop much beyond this starting point.
However, Crane in a small way does look at the relationship between natives to the area and the much richer North American settlers. For example, Mona says she has adopted Luis Martinez, an ‘Indian boy’, who she lavishes gifts on but doesn’t allow him much freedom of his own. Daisy and Julie, residents of Santa Maria discuss this relationship and present differing views:
‘Daisy said as usual that Luis was nothing but a savage and that Mona was wasting her time and money trying to make him anything else. I said as usual that it was Luis who was being wasted and that the life he led was nothing but a superior sort of slavery. Daisy said that Mona’s adopting him meant that he would have a fortune someday so my goodness, and I said did she really adopt him, or did she just say it.’
Throughout the story Luis is an interesting character as you try to decide which viewpoint is correct. Is he the victim? Or is he using Mona in turn? Even Jean allows stereotypes and assumptions to cloud her judgement in regard to him.
Out of the two novels I have read I much preferred The Golden Box, as its’ pace was better and the investigation got underway quicker and The Turquoise Shop was a much slower read. Moreover, Jean as a character is rather annoying as she does zero investigating and the only information she comes by is through what others tell her, which can be quite biased information, leading to quite a myopic viewpoint from her. Moreover, because Jean is so unaware of what is really going on and is so reluctant to find anything out, the readers are kept in the dark like her about so many things, which meant that for me the solution was less satisfying as although the killer was well-hidden, the solution came across as quite an info-dump, since there was a lot I wasn’t aware of. It was interesting though, to see how Jean differs depending on whether she is in Mexico or in her home town. Yet, due to the pace and Jean my rating for this novel is a bit lower than usual.