Although the 7th book in Olsen’s Rachel Murdock series, this is my first experience of Olsen’s work. Between the 1930s and 50s Olsen wrote this series of a dozen novels, which all reference cats in the title, though in the texts themselves the cat link can be somewhat minimal – well it was in this book, with Rachel’s cat Samantha doing little more than following them around at times. It is not for nothing that The Saturday Review wrote that the ‘title [was] rather dragged in by Samantha’s tail.’
The story begins with Rachel Murdock and her sister Jennifer being invited under false pretences to Miriam Hamilton’s luxurious 36-bedroomed home. They are apparently being sent for to receive financial reparation due to their father supposedly being swindled by Miriam’s, but in reality Miriam is rather unnerved by a number of events going on at her home and wants Rachel in to do some amateur sleuthing. Or does she? On arrival at the home the reader and the Murdock sisters are acquainted with the household and its hangers on, including Miriam’s grown up stepchildren by two different marriages. However, the first time we actually see Miriam is when she is found murdered in her bed, her bones broken and fractured. Motives abound for Miriam’s death given her greed and vicious ways of obtaining more land and money. Further death and peculiar events unfold including the appearance and disappearance of a bloodstained doll – an event which the others seem to know more than they are saying. And of course there is a sheriff who is less than keen to receive help from any amateur spinster sleuth.
Despite being an abridged version of the novel the story still holds together and does not appear as rushed and disjointed as the abridged version of Kathleen Moore Knight’s Exit A Star (1941). This may be because firstly the cast of characters, setting and plot are narrower and I also think the abridgers have done a good job at retaining all the essential information about each character and their potential motives.
Jennifer and Rachel are also a huge comic delight, being very contrasting personalities. Rachel is a natural seeker of adventures and acting in an unladylike manner, whilst Jennifer is much more reserved and cautious. The opening where Jennifer reproves her sister for opening someone else’s letter showcases well the gentle comedy of the tale: ‘I won’t stay and see you break every rule of civilised conduct. At the age of seventy, taking up robbery of mail…’ Jennifer also makes for a less than ideal but quite entertaining amateur sleuth assistant and her own attempts at sleuthing, although brief due to the abridgement, do give the tale a wonderfully hilarious ending.
The sheriff in the tale is no fool, which leaves Rachel disconcerted at times, but ultimately it is she who figures out what is really going on and the final twists are quite clever. Given this is an abridged version the solution surprisingly didn’t feel too pulled out of the hat and in a way I think the abridgement meant that the woman in jeopardy in the dark angle of the plot was not overplayed. I should also mention that the deft characterisation skills of Olsen also extend to other characters in the story, especially Miriam. Olsen’s depiction of her is quite thoughtful, showing the fear and anger behind all the money and rudeness.
So all in all I am glad I tried out Olsen’s work and I will be keeping my eye for further books by her, hopefully in the full versions.
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Gold Card): Book