The Black Shroud (1941) by Constance and Gwenyth Little

This is my third Little novel this year, which I luckily found in a job lot of books. Like Murder Gone Mad (1931), today’s review is another snowy November read, which of course is well timed with our current weather …

 

If you’ve read a Little mystery before you’ll be familiar with the plot elements I am going to mention, as the Littles decidedly had a pattern to their work. Fortunately for us it is a rather splendid and entertaining one.

Diana Prescott has left a comfortable family home to try her luck as an actress, eschewing the life pattern her father set out for her: ‘settle down, get married, and reproduce myself.’ Living at Mrs Markham’s boarding house, she soon makes friends with the owner’s daughter Barbara, as well as the other various boarders: two thirty something school teachers, a bank worker, a fairly dotty old lady, an ex-actress and two spinster sisters, Imogene and Opal Rostrum. Whilst these latter two begin to act strangely, eventually disappearing, Diana is confronted with a new boarder, who she knows works at her father’s canning factory. She is convinced that he has been sent down by her father to woo her back home and she is far from impressed, planning on getting as much good times and fun nights out as possible from Dennis Livingstone, without it coming to anything, especially not her coming back home. Of course her plans do go somewhat awry when the less than with it Miss Giddens complains of a woman who won’t leave her room… In keeping with a typical Little plot, Diana, Barbara and Dennis do some amateur sleuthing to varying degrees, though the latter of course cannot be entirely trusted as new information comes to light. Add the arrival of Diana’s father and you’re set for a gloriously comic ride.

Overall Thoughts

After some less than brilliant reads I was pleased to get onto this one. You can rely on the Littles for a good read, with a writing style that embeds its comic touches so seamlessly that it is hard to give any examples, without quoting paragraphs at a time. The boarding house setup is one the Littles recreate very well and it lends itself to their writing strengths, namely character development and relationships, alongside crisp dialogue and building up of increasingly bizarre events until death occurs and then keeps on occurring. The comically combative relationship between Diana and her father is a real treat to read. Hard to fault them really. The mystery element is perhaps not the hardest to solve in the world, but nor does the solution come upon you immediately. You arrive at the solution at the right sort of time, not too early that the rest of the book is boring, but not too late either. This is the sort of book which should have been adapted in the 1940s and 50s for film, starring Carey Grant of course as Dennis. All of this book screams classic comedy romance film, though I think the romance/relationship side of things is very well written and not as straight forward as you might think.

Thankfully this book is not impossible to find online as I have spotted it on a few sites, so whether you’ve read any Little novels or none at all I can definitely recommend this book as a strong example of how comic crime should be written.

Rating: 4.5/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Colour in the title

17 comments

  1. Thanks for the review, and it’s encouraging to see yet another strong rating for a Littles novel. 😊 Now that you’ve read a few, which would you say is the best – especially from a mystery standpoint? To date I’ve only read ‘Black Rustle’ and ‘Black Eye’, and I’m considering trying a third novel by the Littles. 🤓

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hmm good question. The next 4.5/5 rated ones on the blog are The Black Iris and The Black Coat, which I think have a more complex plot/mystery than this one, so you might want to try one of those two. This one is brilliant, but I wonder whether you might solve it sooner than I did.

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  2. Thus far I think my favorite of the Littleses was the one in which the house is divided into two side-by-side halves, with mischievous relatives and random other people secretly living in the “empty” half. (I can’t recall which one that is–the fact that they’re all The Black Something or Other certainly doesn’t help! (:v>)

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      • Eureka! I was able to use my own Screwball Mysteries list to remind myself of the title. It’s The Black Goatee.

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      • Screwball mysteries ? Surprising that you have not included books by Harry Stephen Keeler ! 🙂

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      • I was surprised by your choice of this author Santosh. But then I appreciate I have only read one book by Keeler. His plots are crazy and immensely baffling but I must admit I don’t remember The riddle of the travelling skull to be a laugh out loud comedy nor a screwball one. But I imagine you have read more by him, which titles were you thinking of?

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      • Thanks for the link not sure why it didn’t come up in my searches. I’ve added a few ideas of my own to the list. Not sure if they are ones you have read but any screwball comedy list must include Craig Rice’s work.

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      • And though I love Delano Ames and have read about two thirds of those so far, I only felt that one was truly “screwball” in flavor.

        P.S. The “ranking” in what I’ve added doesn’t mean anything. I don’t really care much about ranking things, so I just added them in whatever order was convenient.

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      • Santosh, I don’t know the Keelers. But if you use Goodreads and think they belong, by all means add ’em!

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  3. By the way, in case it’s of interest, I recently created a Screwball Mysteries list on Goodreads, just for the heck of it. Thus far it’s quite brief (and the only works–or at least the only authors–appearing on it would already be familiar to anybody following this blog), but maybe other screwball fans will eventually discover it and add to it.

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