Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Evil Eyes
Kelley Roos is a husband and wife writing team, whose works in the past I have enjoyed reading a lot. I have read Made up to Kill (1940) and The Frightened Stiff (1942), the first and third in the Jeff and Haila Troy series. Today’s read, If the Shroud Fits (1941) is the second.
The story begins with Haila waiting for Jeff to return home, when her friend Julie Taylor bursts in, terror in her eyes and she is desperate to see Jeff. After a lot of persuading Julie finally tells Haila what is bothering her. Julie works for Photo Arts, a photography company, which is currently doing a project for Cottrell Silverware, and she says this afternoon she had an unnerving experience in the dark room. In the dark, Julie says she sensed someone in the dark room, which is confirmed when someone blinds her with a light. When she eventually switches the light on there is no one there, only the smell of chloroform. Julie is convinced that out of the 10 people in the workplace there is someone intent on murder, her own life having been spared as she wasn’t the intended victim. Just as Haila manages to reassure Julie, the phone rings with a call for Julie to return to work that night. The photographic plates taken earlier on have disappeared and the shoot needs to be redone. Julie is then terrified that the killer is planning on trying again. In order to soothe Julie and to satisfy her own curiosity, Haila decides to go along, as the people who work there are old friends. She even gets to be in the new shoot, as one of the models is late. All seems to be going well until after the shoot when Mrs Isabelle Fleming, society lady and millionaire and the star of the shoot, is found stabbed with a carving knife in her dressing room. As well as this fatality occurring, Julie has also changed her tune. She begs Haila to say nothing of what happened to her during the afternoon and even admits to having removed and then broken the afternoon photographic plates.
Lieutenant Wyatt and his assistant Lockhart are called into investigate. It comes out that Mrs Fleming was the aunt of Erika, who is Ralph MacCormick’s (head photographer) wife, meaning that both these characters head the list of suspects. It doesn’t help that Ralph’s business has gone broke. Further circumstantial evidence also puts Ralph in a poor light, though the police’s initial questioning throws a lot suspicion on the other’s movements and it is obvious that not everyone is telling the full truth. The following day a further mystery is added to the mix as Julie, who has been acting very strange, has disappeared. With the police focusing a lot of attention on Ralph, Haila cajoles Jeff into solving the case. A lawsuit surrounding the will of Mrs Fleming’s husband 15 years ago also seems to be resurfacing in the present. Jeff’s investigation shows people Haila has known for years in a new light and this new information also leads to the killer striking again. Haila doesn’t really have much of a sleuthing role in this story but she certainly contributes to the end of the book where her own life is put in jeopardy.
Out of the three Jeff and Haila Troy novels I have read this has been my least favourite. For some reason it just didn’t work as well and the humour seemed more force and felt a bit flat. For example, Wyatt and Lockhart are set up as two wisecracking policemen, but although my brain was registering humour, I just didn’t find it that funny. Here is one instance of their supposed humour:
‘That’s being fair isn’t it, Lockhart?’
‘More than fair’
‘You let me know if I do anything unfair’
‘Sure. After all, this murderer is an American citizen.’
Even other characters’ humour seems forced such as Jeff’,s who replies to someone’s comment about where Julie would be: ‘I don’t know where else she’d go… she wouldn’t pick this morning to visit the Hayden Planetarium,’ with ‘No… Today’s Men Only Day up at the Planetarium.’ Again in the reading experience this just didn’t come across as funny as the other stories I have read.
Furthermore this book has contributed to this year’s reading gripe. I have read a few novels this year which involve an amateur sleuthing duo. Yet what has really annoyed me is how the wives or female partners of these pairs are so passive and uninvolved in the actual detection. It feels like a not so subtle message that detective work is not for women and that their role in these partnerships is more about boosting the egos of their men. In the instance of this book this problem was a bit of a rollercoaster. The problem reared its’ ugly head at the start of the story when Julie is dubious of telling her story to Haila and then when Haila vacillates between wanting to go to the photo shoot and wanting to stay home and wait for Jeff. During this oscillating Haila thinks to herself that:
‘Jeff was the member of the Troy family who had a way with murders. All I did was tag along at his side. Without a side to tag along at I was worth less than nothing. There was no reason for me to stick my nose in and my neck out. I might better stay here and wait for Jeff.’
But then for the first third of the book Jeff is not involved in the narrative, giving me the hope that maybe Haila will be more involved. Yet as soon as Jeff does emerge in the story, this hope splutters and dies as Haila nauseatingly flatters her husband and begs him to solve the case at the expense of following through on a job offer. After that Haila either follows Jeff around like a pet dog or has a few HIBK woman in peril moments. Added to this she never makes any of the deductions, blurts out important information when she shouldn’t, so it’s not surprising that Jeff doesn’t keep her in the loop and goes off to do his own thing. I think this annoyed me more than it should because as I far as I can remember in the other two books, Haila is much less wet and is more involved. Have I remembered wrongly? And therefore have I just run out of patience with wet weak nit wits? I am aware that this issue may bother other readers less and the puzzle itself is good, though I think it is the sort of puzzle which can only be solved when the killer commits further acts as based on the character’s initial witness statements it would be hard to prove much against anyone, except perhaps Ralph.
SPOILER – THIS NEXT BIT TALKS ABOUT SOMETHING NEAR THE END OF THE BOOK AND NORMALLY I WOULD LEAVE IT OUT BUT I DO FEEL THE NEED FOR A VERY SMALL RANT, WHICH TIES INTO MY PREVIOUS AND SLIGHTLY LONGER RANT ABOUT FEMALE SIDEKICKS…
So in the life threatening situation which Haila gets herself stuck in to at the end, the killer effectively ties her to a chair in a flat and turns on the gas. However, we are told at the end of the book that the flat in question had its’ gas supply turned off weeks ago, so Haila’s response in the situation e.g. smelling gas, finding her throat burning and struggling to breathe etc., was apparently according to Jeff just her imagination. For me this just puts the tin hat on Haila’s inferior role in the book. Not only does she not sleuth or her help solve the case, but she comes across as rather dim-witted and hysterical to boot in this final scene. *and breathe*
JJ – If the Shroud Fits