Alias for Death (1950) by Barbara Leonard Reynolds

Source: Review Copy (Coachwhip)

Today’s read is by an author, who seems to be a part of what seems like a legion of vintage crime writers, who only ever dabbled in the genre once, (sorry Brad!), as for the rest of her writing career Reynolds wrote children’s fiction and non-fiction. An interesting fact included in this edition is that she went to Japan for 3 years, when her husband went there to study children survivors of the Hiroshima attack and the effects radiation were having on them.

However today’s read is set within Ohio and predominately in a town called Glen Fell. Yet the story begins with a prelude set on train journey in 1945. Mystery writer, Abigail Potter, has a disturbing encounter when going to visit her sick aunt. She is in the same carriage as a man going by the name of Corporal George Rascinski, though the bag on his name says otherwise. After clumsily, yet surreptitiously destroying a document he becomes unusually gregarious with Potter, telling her of a perfect crime plot for a mystery novel, yet Potter gets a much more sinister impression from this event, believing he is going to murder a love rival. It isn’t wholly due to an overactive imagination, as in many ways Rascinski’s inconsistent social demeanour foreshadows the anti-heroes of Patricia Highsmith. Convinced that murder is in the air, Potter tracks down where he is going, the same town she was going to as it happens and she signs up for the local gazette and over the next three years she meticulously scrutinises the paper not only for any signs of a sudden death but also for information concerning this man and those in his family’s social circle. Having almost given the idea up, a sudden death does finally appear, the poisoning of Harrison Hawkes. Yet the details that follow do not make sense, well not with the theory Potter had developed. This does not deter her though, as she races off for the next train to Glen Fell. Potter ingratiates herself as any Miss Marple like amateur sleuth would do and soon seeks out the principals involved in the case. However despite what may seem like all of her prior knowledge of the crime, Potter time and time again finds she has to revise her ideas, whilst of course further deaths and violence follow.

Overall Thoughts

Now if you’re been a regular reader of my blog and Brad’s (ahsweetmystery), you’ll know my difficult relationship with Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym, a fictional sleuth whose fallibility and selfish emotional nincompoop-ness turns me into a very irritated reader. So when I was reading this story I was anxious that I might be coming across another Miss Pym, as she definitely gets the wrong end of the stick and her actions are arguably questionable. Yet I was sooooo relieved this was not the case. She is enthusiastic in her sleuthing role but never ditzy. She doesn’t fall into a pit of self-pity when she gets things wrong but faces the consequences and starts again and I like how she challenges and chides her more melodramatic feelings and thoughts. She strives to avoid being like HIBK heroines, who ‘withhold vital evidence and lay themselves wide open to lethal attack.’ There’s definitely a certain grit about her character. Since she is a mystery writer it is not surprising that there is a certain amount of metafictional comment, though I feel Reynolds has not gone for the Edmund Crispin comic approach, which was a wise choice and instead she uses it to underpin and flesh out Potter’s attitude towards sleuthing.

The mystery plot is an interesting one. Given the type of sleuth we’re presented with, it could be easy to suspect that the mystery itself would be quite a simple or thriller-ish affair, yet again this would be an erroneous assumption. Whilst the mystery unfolds the reader has to decide whether this is an inverted mystery of sorts, yet because Potter only has some of the information, this is no easy issue to decide on. In fact a bit like Christie’s Nemesis, Potter begins with an indefinite case, which by degrees starts to take shape. Yet this is no rigid or fixed shape as at several points in the story, the case is shown to be turned inside out or turned upside down and the solution is fairly intricate when it arrives. I thought I had it sussed, but Reynolds definitely fooled me and I feel quite silly having missed one very obvious clue. Though of course I only saw it in retrospect.

A good puzzle and a good central character leave this as a novel I feel I can safely recommend, so I’ll end with a snippet of Potter’s no nonsense attitude when a suspect phones her one night when she fears there’s someone in the house:

“Hadn’t you better call the police?”

“He’d murder me in my bed before they could get here! He-”

“Then I strongly suggest that you get out of your bed!”

Rating: 4.25/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Amateur Detective

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