I’ve been returning to a few familiar authors of late but today’s post concerns a new writer for me. I was especially interested in giving this book a go, as I have not read much by American golden age detective fiction authors. Margaret Armstrong (1867-1944) was the daughter of a stained glass artist and went onto become a designer and illustrator, even doing book covers for some of Charles Dickens’ and Robert Louis Stevenson’s works. She also had a career in writing though she only wrote two other mystery novels: The Man With No Face (1940) and The Blue Santo Murder Mystery (1941). Murder in Stained Glass is narrated by a spinster named Harriet Trumbell and throughout the story, (though mainly at the beginning and the end of the book), there are stylistic connections to the HIBK school of mystery writing. In the opening of the novel for instance Trumbell remains convinced that but for the sunny weather, the events which happened at Bassett Bridge may not have happened or may not have happened the way they did. She is sure that her role in the proceedings was essential in that she ‘saw what no one else saw,’ though I think Armstrong is quite ironic with this later on in the story.
The book begins with Trumbell visiting an old school friend in Bassett Bridge named Charlotte Blair, who also has her cousin Phyllis staying with her. Trumbell is not looking forward to this visit, having a dim view of her friend and in the opening pages it is interesting to see Trumbell try and distance herself from the more negative assumptions of being a spinster and instead tries to come across in comparison to Charlotte as less stuck in the past and not a fuddy-duddy. Unsurprisingly, there is local discord, mostly centring round Frederick Ullathorne, who is a stained glass artist. He is a very temperamental and self-centred man, who is often at odds with his workers due to his harsh tongue and he is very critical and overbearing with his now grown up son, Leo, limiting his schooling for instance and also acting jealously over Leo’s blossoming relationship with Phyllis. His behaviour earns the opprobrium of Charlotte who soon secludes herself, an event which happens from time to time when she is having one of her moods. In the interim, Trumbell, Phyllis and Leo entertain each other, taking various trips and excursions. Yet one afternoon a workman from Frederick’s shop comes with the disturbing news that there are bones in the kiln… and it just so happens that Frederick has not come back from his trip to New York…
This is a case where philandering and robbery could be possible motives and the police (headed by Detective Skinner who is not adept at ingratiating himself) seem to have many favourite suspects to choose from. Keen that those she cares about won’t be accused or arrested, Trumbell steps into the fray and is soon on the hunt for the woman in one of Frederick’s sketches, ‘the dark lady,’ (which is perhaps an ironic allusion to the woman of the same name in Shakespeare’s sonnets). But is it a dead end or a mare’s nest? Or is Trumbell on the correct trail, a trail which could put her own life in danger?
On the whole I really enjoyed this book and it intrigued me that one of the most immoral and unlikeable characters, Frederick, shares the same profession as Armstrong’s father. Like so many crime writers, Armstrong has obviously written about what she knows, but it interested me that she gave her father’s profession to such a character who has a dysfunctional relationship with his son. It could mean nothing at all, but part of me wonders why she included her father’s profession in the way she did. Additionally an artist as tyrant was an engaging variation on the overbearing patriarch usually found tyrannising country houses.
Initially I thought I might not get on with Trumbell as she does come across as quite critical early on. However, once the bones are discovered and the investigation proceeds this changed. Maybe because her mind had something else to wonder about, she spent less time criticising people like Charlotte? Yet this did get me thinking about narration styles, as I think Trumbell’s attitudes towards her host are more visible because of the first person narrative and therefore her Trumbell’s own shortcomings are easier to see. Again this left me wondering whether or not I prefer first or third person narration (personally I think there are more pitfalls to the former) and equally whether a character such as Miss Marple would become less likeable if she narrated her cases in the first person.
It seems inevitable really when one reads another book featuring a spinster amateur sleuth that you compare them to Miss Marple – or maybe that’s just me. In some ways Marple and Trumbell are similar as both are adept at getting information through gossip for instance. Nevertheless I think there are a few differences, principally of which Miss Marple is calmer, more collected, sure of herself and governed by reason and justice. Conversely, Trumbell is less sure of herself and governed by emotions and romanticism, as typified here: ‘in short, I was depressed. And when I feel depressed I always rush off and do something.’ She may have gone into the investigation out of curiosity, but she soon seems to be doing it as a way of keeping one step ahead of the police so she can execute her own happy ending, (justice doesn’t seem the right word,) for those she likes and it is telling that she sees herself at one point in the story as a ‘fairy godmother,’ though in my opinion she is one who splashes her cash around a lot. To be fair to Trumbell her emotionalism does not comes across as hysteria, but instead influences her theories on the murder, making them perhaps just that little bit more imaginative or sensational. Additionally I found it interesting that two other male characters warn Trumbell that her sleuthing could make her an accessory after the fact, something which I haven’t heard said to other fictional sleuths. Then again one of these male characters seems much happier when Trumbell comes to him for an advice and when she uncovers information in a manner which reaffirms his assumptions about women.
The novel has an engaging narrative style on the whole and is well paced. Trumbell may have a bit too much luck on her side at times, but she is interesting to follow and there are plenty of physical clues for puzzle fans. The solution was satisfying as although I guessed a part of it early on, being a seasoned crime fiction fan, the other half was definitely a rewarding surprise. So I’d say Armstrong is definitely worth a go.
P. S. I came across a food I had not heard of before called hominy grits. Any one tried it? Not sure it has the most appealing name though.