Last month I had my first encounter with the work of Kathleen Moore Knight, when I reviewed The Trouble at Turkey Hill (1946), which is part of her Elisa Macomber series. Whilst there were many reasons for enjoying her writing style, depictions of gender politics did make it hard to like Macomber. Therefore I was very excited to read Exit a Star (1941), which is the second novel in Knight’s Margot Blair series. Blair runs a publicity firm with Felix Norman, though at the start of the novel they do not see eye to eye on their latest client, Susan Holland. Susan, despite some family opposition, is determined to fulfil her theatrical ambitions before resigning herself to a sensible society marriage and in order to do this she decides that she needs to be the best dressed woman in America. This is where Blair comes in, ensuring Mlle. Denise, (who is really an Irishman named Dennis Moriarty), creates unique outfits for her and that these outfits get all the newspaper coverage possible. Simple right? Well it would be if the lead actress, Lucia Dracott, in the play Susan is starring in, wasn’t trying to humiliate and embarrass Susan by wearing identical outfits and making certain that everyone thinks Susan is the copycat.
It all comes to a head during a summer try out of the play. Once more Susan has been humiliated by Lucia and the former even threatens to kill Lucia, which is of course overheard by witnesses. Later that night Margot decides to visit Susan’s cabin to check she is okay. Instead she finds Susan gone and Lucia shot on the bathroom floor. Mountains of circumstantial evidence point the finger at Susan as the culprit and even Margot and Lynn Speakman (the playwright) tampering with the evidence doesn’t fool the police for a minute, nor Bill Kelsay, an over eager news reporter, who seems very keen to track Susan down. Lucia was far from likeable so there are other suspects to consider. There is a long forgotten husband and there is also the issue of who was helping her to copy Susan’s dresses. Whilst Margot is trying to prove Susan’s innocence and figure out why Susan is acting in such an incriminating manner, it seems the killer is far from finished, putting Margot in plenty of danger throughout the story and also adding to the rising body count.
Within reading the first couple of pages of this story, it felt like a breath of fresh air after the patriarchal attitudes of Elisa Macomber. Here women are not required to be subservient and their right to pursue careers is firmly endorsed with Margot. For instance her business partner moans about their new client saying:
‘What I can’t understand is why girls like Susan Holland can’t find enough in their own world to amuse them […] Girls like that are supposed to take out their surplus energy in the Junior League and then get married, aren’t they, and leave jobs to those who need them.’
However, Margot promptly replies that:
‘Didn’t it ever occur to you that a girl’s immortal soul might depend on being able to get a job and hold it? That that programme of yours might look like the Long Road That Leads but to the Grave?’
Margot goes onto say that Susan wants to fulfil her dreams of acting, just ‘to know what it was like to be a real person;’ perceiving that once she has married Ogden Yorke, she will become absorbed into his family and the duties which comes with it. It intrigues me that Knight can create two series with such diametrically opposed gender politics, as I cannot imagine Marcella in The Trouble at Turkey Hill, ever saying such a comment to Elisa. Suffice to say I engaged with Margot from the get go and it was great having her narrate the mystery.
So far so good right? The story as I raced through was going great. Brilliant pace, tension, setting and a sufficient amount of character ambiguity to keep you guessing. However there was a problem. My copy of the text is a wartime production. Thin paper, miniscule font and of course some abridgements to the story. The original book is 300 pages and my edition is 96. To be fair the abridgement did not become a problem until a long way into the book. Yes there was less character depth, but all of pros of Knight’s writing style were still coming through and the plot didn’t feel emptied. That is until around page 70 or so. Clearly the last 26 pages of this book must have covered nearly over a 100 or more in the original book. Plot elements required to make the solution work appeared out of nowhere, stretching credulity somewhat and the whole novel’s romance element becomes practically nonsensical. Characters who really ought to have been around were not and on the whole I felt rather frustrated. It was going so well and yet the ending just felt massacred.
Consequently whilst I am recommending this book and this series, as Margot is delight, I strongly urge you to make sure the copy you are buying is not a wartime production, especially if it is one by the publishers, Cherry Tree.
Rating: 4/5 (Would have been higher but the abridged ending made this impossible).
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Food (back cover)