Glass on the Stairs (1954) by Margret Scherf

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Full Skeleton

Glass on the Stairs

Rue Morgue Press have once again made it possible for me to try out a new author who is not well known. Born in America, Scherf’s writing career spanned from 1940-1978. Her mystery fiction tends to have a humorous element and she wrote more than one series. Glass on the Stairs (1954) is part of her Henry and Emily Bryce amateur sleuth married couple series, but she also wrote a series featuring the Reverend Martin Buell and she even wrote some of the Nancy Drew stories.

Henry and Emily Bryce are decorators in New York and my first impressions of them did remind me a little of the Lockridges’ Mr and Mrs North, especially in their opening dialogue with each other and Emily’s more frivolous nature. Death happens within a matter of pages when a woman is found shot in the gun shop below the Bryce’s apartment. The shop in question is run by their friend Links and he had left the woman in the shop alone, whilst he went to seek Henry’s support in ejecting the woman from his shop as she refused to accept that she can only buy a gun if she has a permit. It is then that the shot is heard. Since Links did not leave any ammunition in the gun, it is assumed that the woman brought her own, (which is vindicated after an inspection of her handbag) and therefore this death was a suicide, a theory readily accepted by the policeman Mr Burgreen.

The victim is Mrs Madge Otis Craver Rhodes, who used to be an actress but due to her age is now unable to get jobs. Thankfully she was married to a well-off man. As in many stories of this type characters are conveniently interlinked, so Links’ lawyer, Eva Rhodes (who also lives in an apartment nearby) is the aunt of Madge’s husband Otis. But of course this being detective fiction, the suicide theory is soon questioned and the ugly word of murder is raised. Firstly, Eva doesn’t think it was in Madge’s character to commit suicide and when they all listen to the tape recorder which Links has in his shop (some form of security device one presumes), there are some tell-tale noises which can’t be heard and should be. There are also a plethora of motives for killing Madge, as from the get go her name is blackened by everyone, portraying her as the worst kind of spoilt ageing actress. It seems her marriage was an unhappy one and there is even a hint that Otis was having an affair with a younger woman; an untalented actress on a show which Otis’ company sponsors.

Further events follow making Madge’s death even less like a suicide such as a late night robbery in Links’ shop and the finding and then disappearing of a possibly vital clue. But the focus of suspicion is not just on Madge’s relations as there are other characters linked to her and conveniently Henry and Emily Bryce through work connections, making this a much more personal case for our amateur sleuths. The police don’t feature much in this story and it is Henry who does pretty much all of the amateur sleuthing and therefore gets the most narrative space. Arson, poisoning and nearly fatal “accidents” also follow and Henry and Emily both have to face up to the fact that someone they know well could be a killer.

The Corpse

Madge even before she is dead is described as an ineffectual and likely to be hysterical woman. Moreover, once she becomes a corpse these assumptions are reinforced by her appearance:

‘She was a revolting and fascinating sight. Middle forties… face dried and lined by too much sun, wearing the strange items accumulated by women who spent winters in soft climates – a low cut black jersey blouse, a full skirt, hand woven in Guatemala with Indians marching around the hem, Italian straw sandals with high heels and ankle straps, a whole armful of turquoise bracelets.’

From the get go Henry assumes she was ‘spoiled, sick and probably unhappy’ and her reputation is not redeemed by anyone else in the story. But for me because I never got the chance to make my own impressions of her character directly from her speech and behaviour and instead had to rely on other people’s second hand views, I think the blackening of her character was overdone to the point where Madge becomes little more than a flat and forced stereotype.

Henry and Emily

Initially I quite liked Henry and Emily’s relationship as it fitted quite comfortably into the group of fictional humorous married detecting couples. However this didn’t last that long as like in the Frances Crane novels, the amateur sleuthing is very one sided, with the majority of the work being done by Henry, which was unexpected when at the beginning of the story Emily’s thwarted desire for investigating is likened to ‘a dog deprived of a T-bone.’ Furthermore, their relationship becomes less appealing when Emily is continually painted as and then lives up to the image of the dim chaotic trivial woman. For example when Emily quite naturally asks why the police are here, Henry replies, ‘Don’t confuse things by talking will you?’ and her very few contributions to the subsequent case are invariably decried. In particular she is believed to be a character who imagines things or acts like a naughty child. For instance during the night Emily is sure someone was in their clothes closet but Henry doesn’t believe her and she too doubts anyone else would believe her: ‘No one would believe her, of course. They always believed Henry in matters involving reliable observation.’ Moreover, when some papers go missing the next day, Henry assumes it is Emily who has been fooling around hiding them and takes a long time to believe her when she denies it.

Depictions of Women and Female Body Image

There is quite a range of female characters in the story, yet by and large they are not portrayed in a positive way. Although this novel was written by a woman, the female characters seem to be seen through a male lens, especially in terms of their shortcomings. Eva for a time comes out the best in terms of descriptions, despite her lack of domestic prowess:

‘There was a woman who asked no special favours of the world, stood on her own feet, fought her own rights, worked like a beaver, knew the law and saw things objectively – most things anyways.’

But then she is seen as a bit of an oddity as her physical appearance does not parallel with male assumptions of what a successful strong lawyer should be like. Female body image is also an issue which crops up in the story and I’m afraid to say that women who are not slim do not fare well in this book, invariably becoming figures of derision or fun. There are two points in the book which stuck in my mind. The first was Emily’s trip to the delicatessen, where the shop keeper and another customer are concerned by her choice of breakfast, fearing it will lead to her becoming fat. The second was when Emily sees Lucille Marsh (the woman Otis may or may not be having an affair with) and she remarks, ‘who needs talent with a shape like that!’ The first example intrigued me as both the “concerned” people were male and the concern itself seems out of place and like an imposing of their own vision of the “perfect” or “ideal” woman onto Emily and her life choices. The second example interested me because it seems like Emily is reinforcing this image of what a woman should be like by suggesting that Lucille doesn’t need to be a good actor as long as she is beautiful and slim.

Overall Thoughts

I think I was a little disappointed by this book. The initial crime and the potential for an enjoyable humorous married sleuthing team was all there at the beginning of the book and the writing style was good. But I think the subsequent narrative however well written wasn’t as good as I hoped it would be. The characterisation felt uneven to me and the choice of killer wasn’t entirely satisfying, though I can’t say why due to spoilers. Moreover, Henry’s detecting efforts are a bit undermined by the ending when it seems like the police are not quite so behind him as he would like to think and there is also another character who could have had the case solved a lot quicker if they had bothered to mention one very important piece of information. Having said all of this though I do wonder whether my reading environment was not ideal and therefore influenced my overall enjoyment of the book as I was reading this book on a train which ended up becoming incredibly rowdy. So I do wonder if I had been in an environment more conducive to reading then my rating of this book would have been a little bit higher.

Rating: 3.5/5


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