Ever keen to try something new, the Tuesday Night Bloggers have gone for a different type of theme this month: the letter A. Be it a book title, author, country or a more abstract theme; it all goes, as long as it begins with the letter A. Moira at the blog, Clothes in Books, is collecting the posts for the TNB this month, so don’t forget to check it out.
For my first post, a book I was recently reading fortuitously fitted in with this month’s theme, as murder, theft and mayhem all take place in an antiques shop in Elizabeth Dean’s Murder is a Collector’s Item (1939). Dean wrote three mystery novels revolving around Emma Marsh, an antique shop worker; Jeff Graham, the antique shop owner and Emma’s financially well-off boyfriend of sorts, Hank Fairbanks, who incidentally is also a budding criminologist. Today’s read is the first of this trilogy, though this is not my first encounter with Dean’s work, as in my pre blog days I also read the second book in the series, Murder is a Serious Business (1940). Dean was not a rigorous planner when it came to writing her mystery novels, as apparently it ruined the fun and this first novel actually came out of a bet she had with friends. The antique shop setting was based on her own work experience in such a business. Her first novel must have been quite a success, as from the royalties she managed to furnish her home and buy a herd of Aberdeen Angus cattle.
For fans of female sleuths then this may be a series of interest, as Tom and Enid Schantz, (who as the Rue Morgue Press reprinted this trilogy), wrote in their introduction to this novel that Emma avoids falling into the categories of ‘menopausal spinsters, deadly sirens, [and] admiring wives or airheaded girlfriends.’ They go on to write that Dean ‘deliberately set out to make Emma the major player,’ when it came to the detecting. This latter idea intrigued me as based on my memories of the second book I wasn’t so sure this intention was truly achieved. Consequently when reading this book this was something I looked out for. Emma avoids the HIBK heroine camp, as despite her habitual forgetfulness, when she encounters danger she does the sensible thing and turns right back around and legs it. As hinted at earlier, there is a romance element to the series, however I would say it is far from cloying, as barbed comments regularly fly between Emma and Hank, making their relationship less conventional. Schantz also suggest that this novel is good for showing ‘what it was like to be a young woman on her own in Boston toward the end of the Great Depression.’ All I can say is, is that I am gravely concerned for the livers of single women in this period, as Emma is definitely no stranger to alcohol.
Murder is a Collector’s Item (1939) commences with the end of a busy working day. Jeff leaves Emma in charge, as he has to go for an appointment, and by appointment we mean a gambling session. Whilst trying to get rid of some customers so she can be on time for her date with a couple of college boys, Emma also gives Richard Norwitch, Hank’s eccentric, but ruthless antique collecting uncle, a key to the shop, so he can meet Jeff there later that night to look at a desk he wishes to buy. Before finally managing to close the shop, Emma has to deal with Jeff’s less than happy wife and Mr Petty, a New York antiques dealer, who is keen to quiz Emma on Norwitch.
Emma manages to make her date, but for some inexplicable reason she leaves her escorts, saying she is going to the bathroom. Yet 45 minutes later she is found hammered in the bar with a random taxi driver and snatches of cryptic conversation certainly make readers’ ears prick up. With a decidedly big hang over Emma arrives at work the next day and finds Norwitch stabbed to death on the shop floor, with a paper knife which has supposedly been missing from the shop for weeks. Hank of course is close on her heels and the police in the form of Lieutenant Donovan and Sergeant Connerton swiftly follow. Jeff immediately becomes suspect due to various pieces of information which come to light and the fact he has gone missing, adds to police suspicion. Yet Emma also comes under scrutiny, with her drunken account of the previous night having quite a number of holes in it. The fact she admits coming back to the shop to check she had bolted a door doesn’t help matters. Is she just trying to protect an innocent or guilty Jeff? Or has she got something worse to hide? Not even with Hank does she fully open up, which makes her a very interesting protagonist to have as you do not know if you can fully trust her. Although even Hank cannot be seen as totally innocent, benefitting hugely from his uncle’s death, though Norwitch’s will certainly holds a big surprise. As the story unfolds things get blacker and blacker for Jeff and Emma, a situation which puts a strain on Hank and Emma’s relationship and another woman does make her way on to the scene.
On balance I definitely think I enjoyed this book more than the second tale in the series, which I think suffered from pacing issues. Emma Marsh is a great character to follow and engage with. Dean’s depiction of her is brave in my opinion, considering attitudes towards women and acceptable female behaviour at the time. Within the opening chapters Emma certainly shows us that she knows how to live it up. It is unusual for a writer to make the reader distrustful of their protagonist so early on, as her drunken experiences make her an elliptical and not entirely reliable witness. I think this would have been an even greater issue for contemporary readers as they would not have known there are two more books to come. Though in Emma’s defence she is not the only one to get inconveniently intoxicated, as Hank too has an alcohol heavy night, which comes back to haunt him when a suspect tries to use it against him.
So how much of a sleuth is Emma Marsh? Well to be honest I am still somewhat undecided. I can completely see how Emma is in the middle of everything and is involved consistently in the case. Moreover she is not a mere heroine in distress needing frequent rescuing. But equally she does not hugely actively seek out information to solve the case, in a way Hank or Donovan do, such as questioning witnesses or suspects or searching through paperwork. In contrast Emma’s contributions to the case are either pieces of information from her witness testimony of events or through chance, often aided by things she has suddenly remembered. But does this make her a true amateur sleuth? Weirdly at the end of the book once the reader has found out the identity of the killer via a Donovan and Hank scene, we then see Emma solving the case based on putting information and clues together. This back to front approach did jar on me a little and this second scene felt a little redundant and the remainder of the book was too stretched out, making the explanation section of the book slightly over done.
As to the solution itself I felt this was rushed in my opinion and I did wonder whether I had missed a chapter or something, in the way it did come out of nowhere a bit. Though I did not completely guess the solution my suspicions were, shall we say, in the right quarter. So whilst the ending is not perfect I think there is still a lot to enjoy about this book as the case is certainly intriguing and Emma and Hank are an exciting and amusing duo to follow, especially considering that a lot of the time there is a definite note of tension surrounding Emma’s reticence on events occurring on the night of the murder.
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Broken object