The Sara Elizabeth Mason Mysteries: Volume 1: Murder Rents a Room (1943) & The Crimson Feather (1945)

Mason is another example of one of the many vintage mystery writers who penned less than a handful of mysteries. Perhaps this was an era which encouraged the hobbyist author, as well as those like Christie or Carr, who saw it as their profession. Of the four she wrote, Mason set 3 of them in Alabama and Coachwhip have published this quartet into two publications, this review looking at the 1st and 3rd novels.

Her debut novel, Murder Rents a Room, takes place on an old plantation called Cliff’s Edge; the descendants of which are having to take in lodgers to keep their house going, the farming side of things being less than successful. Kate Frazier, nee Leigh, is the owner, though other family members also reside on the property. Kate came back from New York after her husband died and it is she who we spend most of the novel with. Cliff’s Edge latest lodger is the poorly Alex Dexter, who is recuperating from pneumonia and there seems to be some attraction between him and Kate. Yet man mad cousin Kitty Bolling enters the mix, wanting a break from her third husband and it just so happens that she knows a thing or two about Alex… Many men in the area are disturbed by Kitty’s return, having been some of her past victims and Uncle Brock is also in a stew about something, though he won’t say why. Despite being the most annoying person, it is not Kitty who dies but Brock and in such a way that it makes an awful lot of people look very suspicious. This story also features the unusual event of a car based night time fox hunt, which is certainly a first for me in my reading! Sheriff Davies is our investigator and he certainly has his work cut out from the less than helpful suspects.

The Crimson Feather also has a female lead recovering from pneumonia. Ann Bartley is travelling to Tuscaloosa for this very reason, going home to her married adopted sister, Jean. She is also going because of a very disturbing letter she has received from this relation. It is immediately apparent that Jean’s in-laws do not like her, nor trust her around her own son, Chip. It is not long before explicit suggestions of insanity are produced. In the midst of this death strikes twice, the first in an unusual way during a hunt (a day time one this time) and the second within the family home. Whilst trying to save her sister, Ann also has to deal with affairs of the heart – meeting a married ex who is still interested in her, as well as a new romantic lead; a military scientist helping in experiments to find a new cure for malaria. Sheriff Davies is also back to unravel matters.

Overall Thoughts

In his introduction Curtis Evans looks at how the Southern states of Northern America are presented, suggesting that Mason’s novels deviate away from ‘Old South romance’ and nostalgia for the good old days. When it comes to race relations he also says that Mason ‘writes sympathetically […] but also with […] a falsely idealised paternalistic attitude.’ This you definitely do see in abundance and although the black servants, get more descriptive attention to their characters, unfortunately they do suffer from the stereotypes of being self-interesting and grasping, along with lazy and a predilection for alcohol, the first of these novels suffering from this the most. Yet if you’re social historian, with an interest in 1940s race relations these two novels would be very handy indeed, as they give you a good idea of what attitudes could be like at the time.

But what about the mystery aspects of both of these tales?

Unfortunately I would not say this is a strong feature of Mason’s writing, though The Crimson Feather is the best in this regard, giving us three questions to puzzle over: Was the first death murder or accidental?, Who is trying to make Jean look insane? and Who is responsible for the second death? The reader is also provided with lists of opportunity and a timetable of movements. This is somewhat lacking in Murder Rents a Room, with the story only having enough plot for a novella and as a consequence is too long winded, being perpetuated by rambling conversations instead which tell us nothing. In both mysteries, the Sheriff has to bluff an awful lot to get his results. Of the two female leads, I preferred Ann over Kate, who has much more sparky and interesting conversation. The level of peril is also much more palpable in The Crimson Feather, the insanity aspect adding a lot to the plot. The character set is also stronger overall in this 3rd novel, providing greater reader engagement.

Her final tale, The Whip, is said to be a departure from the other three in setting and style and it seems to be the most well-known one, so I wonder whether the best might have been saved till last. I may get around to looking at that one at some point.

Rating: 3.25/5

Source: Review Copy (Coachwhip Publications)

Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Recognised Holiday (Murder Rents a Room – Easter)

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