Strange is a writer I am sure I came across at this year’s Bodies from the Library conference, on the back of which I bought this book. Strange was the penname for Dorothy Stockbridge Tillett and Deadly Beloved (1952) is part of her Barney Gantt series of books, of whom Ganett is a newspaper reporter/article writer. Strange had a long writing career with her first novel, The Man Who Killed Fortescue being published in 1929 and 22 books later her final novel The House on 9th Street was published in 1976. The book I am reviewing was her 17th book to be published.
This story takes place in New York and predominantly within East Fifty Eight Street and in one particular apartment block, which is owned by Louisa, who married late in life to dentist, Dr Charles Harrington. The apartment block has all the usual suspects, the newly arrived young couple, Barney and Muriel Gantt, who both contribute to newspaper publications; Katharine Schultz, Harrington’s nurse-secretary, Tom Jones an architect, Letty Gaitskill and her miniature pooch Inch and Ham Benson, an unemployed actor. Via the newspapers the reader learns of a recently discovered body, found in a cellar, that of a red haired woman. The previous occupants of the building were Mr and Mrs George Seymour, the latter of whom had red hair and neither can now be traced. It wouldn’t surprise readers to hear that the Seymour marriage was a quick one (having met each other in the Bronx zoo) and that the wife was older than the husband and also brought the money to the marriage. If you are beginning to think of certain true crime stories, involving multiple marriages and baths then you are definitely getting warm. Similar to Agatha Christie’s Towards Zero (1944), one of the key prioritises of this narrative is the leading up to the central murder, which occurs over one fateful fourth of July weekend and even Captain Hastings could figure out who did this one. Although not marketed as such, this story is an inverted mystery, as there is no difficulty in predicting what is going to happen and instead the focus is on how those close around the criminal can all so easily miss the suspicious tell-tale signs and more importantly miss their sinister significance. It is also a story of how a killer is caught as well and what initial seemingly inconsequential acts lead to this happening.
Strange has an enjoyable writing style and I liked the brief moments of understated humour, such as in the opening page when we are told of how other streets nearby have their own stories of brutal crime to tell: ‘…within a few blocks stands the apartment building where Mrs Titterton was brutally strangled by an upholster…’ They say in comedy it is key words which make a joke funny and this comes through here as the incongruity of the word ‘upholster,’ makes the crimes mentioned more lighted hearted and faintly ridiculous. Another moment of humour is when the narrator talks of Muriel’s agony aunt work and how she unfortunately has letter writers coming in to visit her and in one case a husband going as far as saying that ‘unless she could think of a better solution he really thought he had better shoot’ his wife ‘and get it over with.’ It is a shame therefore that these moments of humour are not more pervasive in the text.
Another missed opportunity I think is with Barney and Muriel Gantt, as they are set up as a natural choice for amateur sleuth team, with Barney already having some experience in that area with his newspaper work. Yet this does not really materialise which again adds to the lack of excitement and surprise this book has. Strange does add in a love triangle with three of the other tenants, which although predictable was well written, having a Shakespearean comedy feel to it. Predictability is this story’s biggest problem, which is a shame as this book shows that Strange has a lot of skill as a writer, especially in regards to having an engaging prose style, as well as having a strong ability to create well-drawn characters, with some brief moments touching on victim psychology. Consequently I think I would like to try her work again but perhaps start with a title earlier in her career. If anyone has any recommendations for which book to try next with this author do let me know.