The Death Box (1946) by Lorna Nicholl Morgan

Source: Review Copy (Sphere, Little Brown Book Group).

Morgan is an author I first came across last year when I reviewed her festive mystery, Another Little Christmas Murder (1947), which was reprinted by Sphere. This year, today’s read is Sphere’s latest Morgan reprint, though it seems a pity so little is known about the author. All that is known about her are the four books she wrote in the 1940s and who originally published them, Macdonald & Co. In fact the author bio section ends with a request for those who know any further about Morgan to contact the Little Brown Book Group. The two remaining novels that have not been reprinted are Murder in Devil’s Hollow (1944) and Talking of Murder (1945). Whether these will be reprinted or not I don’t know.

If you read the Morgan reprint from last year you might have certain expectations for her work, but the opening of this story shows that Morgan is not an author to have her work typecast or categorised. The book begins with Joe Trayne, West End club owner, minding his own business on a street corner when he is approached by a mysterious woman. If you want a quiet life then as a rule of thumb you should ignore or avoid such people; bound to bring chaos and trouble, especially if you just so happen to be in a mystery novel. This proves to be the case when Trayne gets roped into following said mysterious woman back to her apartment where she says there is a dead man. But of course she soon disappears, leaving Trayne with a dead body in a box on his hands, metaphorically speaking. Trayne makes his own departure fairly soon afterwards, but later that night with a new club employee, he returns to the scene only to find the body and box gone and what’s more a rather perplexed woman wondering why there are two men in her apartment. She spins them a story but Trayne is far from convinced and a chance encounter enables him to re-meet the first mysterious woman. From here on in Trayne keeps pulling at the thread of this mystery, unravelling a reclusive lady pianist, a dead artist whose work is now in vogue and of course a reoccurring box, which always turns up with a fresh corpse in it. All of this leads to a thriller showdown and much head thumping ensues…

Overall Thoughts

As I said earlier, readers of Another Little Christmas Murder, may be surprised by today’s book, as it really is a completely different sort of mystery. For starters there is the obvious difference in settings: West End vs. rural England, Summer vs. Winter, but I would also say that Morgan creates a radically different sort of protagonist to follow. Dylis Hughes may be independent like Joe, but other than that they’re fairly worlds apart. Joe is a man of means, but he is no Lord Peter Wimsey. He is not wholly law abiding, being quite happy to not involve the police until the very end of the book and is fairly good at house breaking. In many ways, given current trends in crime fiction and TV drama, Joe is a protagonist with a modern feel. He would not feel out of place if he was lifted into a modern day mystery. He is popular with women, but has no permanent partner. He is aloof and fairly nocturnal. He also has a painful past, but thankfully Morgan only mentions this in passing and does not bore us with endless paragraphs on it. There is perhaps a slight hardboiled feel to Joe in that like all hardboiled private eyes he has the ability to suffer a great deal of injury, yet still keep bouncing back. However I think this element is kept in check. The women in this story are perhaps more on the periphery in some ways, but I think Morgan still uses them quite interestingly, making it hard to decide whether they are on the side of good or bad until the end. This read might have felt more noticeably different for me, as my last few reads have been ones emphasising female characters and domestic suspense. This is not a clue puzzle type of mystery, more of a thriller in the way events unfold. Yet this is not is a criticism though, as the nature of the story suits this mode well and Morgan is good at holding your attention.

Rating: 4/5

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