I have been having quite the Hilda Lawrence-fest this year and have read considerable amount of her output. Though in fairness that isn’t too hard a job to do as she only wrote 4 novels and 2 novellas. Death of a Doll is her final and fourth novel and is the third outing for her serial characters: PI Mark East and two eager amateur sleuths and spinsters, Beulah Pond and Bessy Petty. Having such contrastive sleuths, coming from different mystery subgenres, makes the first half or so of this story an intriguing read. Equally again the first half of the book excellently showcases Lawrence’s talents in creating a high pitch of tension and suspense within a claustrophobic atmosphere. It may be set at Christmas time, but things are far from merry. Lawrence has a strong knack for choosing really good settings for her book and this time she selects a young women’s hostel called Hope House in New York.
The victim is one of its inhabitants who has seemingly jumped to her death 7 storeys up. Very little known about her and it is more convenient to make aspersions upon her character than get to the truth. Lawrence leads the reader up to this point though showing the arrival of a victim and how her enthusiasm for joining the hostel quickly turns to dread and terror, as she realises an awful person from her past, who has threatened to kill her, is not only another inhabitant at the hostel, but has also recognised her in return. Despite her best efforts to escape, (though I felt she could have tried a bit harder), the reader knows her days are numbered and her end is truly terrifying, made even more sinister by an unfortunately themed fancy dress party at the hostel. It is a scene which will stick with the reader for a while.
Some chance acquaintances give Beulah, Bessy and Mark an opening into the case, which has soon been dismissed as a suicide, though it takes a while for their detecting skills to warm up and start uncovering important information about what really happened. And this unfortunately is where the book begins to become unstuck as the remaining 60% of the book is poorly paced, with information and investigative tasks being overly repeated. This would have been a better story if it had been shortened as it would have maintained the tension much better. The ending was good, but it took too long to get there and there is one bit of it which didn’t quite ring true for me. To be honest I think this is a story with too many sleuths and in hindsight should have been either a solely Mark East case or one where the investigative work load is more carefully shared between the three sleuths. The imbalanced approach Lawrence adopts leaves Beulah and Bessy looking like comic spare parts.
However focusing on the first half of the story yields a number of positives. Identity is an important theme in this story, often fleeting in the vast array of characters, hard to pin down, lost in the eternal drabness: ‘They had names like Betty and Peggy and Janie. They meant nothing, they looked exactly alike.’ It is quite telling that Lawrence themes the fancy dress party so all the attendees are in identical dress.
In the opening of the book the hostel sounds more like a grim boarding school in the way the assistant administrator, Angeline Small sees the residents: ‘she wanted to know that all of her seventy girls were safe and sound in their seventy good, though narrow, cots, sleeping correctly and dreamlessly because they were properly nourished and had no ugly little troubles that they hadn’t confessed.’ There is a really feeling of a lack of privacy and individuality, yet surprisingly the story’s victim initially sees this place as a beacon of hope and refuge.
I first came across Beulah and Bessy in Lawrence’s first novel, Blood Upon the Snow (1944) and I think in this story we get to witness their bickering and childlike relationship with each other. Beulah is continually admonishing and correcting Bessy and they are contrastingly described: ‘Bessy resembled an ageing Cupid and Beulah a rejuvenated hawk.’ I particularly enjoyed reading about how they got invited to New York to stay with Roberta:
‘Bessy […] wrote Roberta according to her own formula and gave the letter to Beulah to mail. Beulah tore it up because it was six pages long, with a double row of kisses under the signature and a written injunction to the postman on the back of the envelope. ‘Postman, postman, do your duty, take this to a New York beauty.’
Beulah is also anxious about how Roberta’s uppity British servants will perceive and wants to make a good impression. It is said that she ‘practiced facial expression and posture. She also drilled Bessy in what she told her was a genteel carriage, but Bessy’s pink and white fat was uncooperative. They stopped speaking for two days, and Beulah concentrated on herself.’ It is little tell-tale sentences like these which give Lawrence’s characters such realism as I really can imagine Beulah and Bessy acting as Lawrence describes them.
So yeah, unfortunately this is a story which starts well with a lot of promise but does not live up to expectations in the second half, though other readers might enjoy it more.