A Baffling Trunk Mystery in Shadow of a Lady (1957) by Holly Roth

I first heard about this author on Dan’s blog, The Reader is Warned, when he reviewed Roth’s novel, The Mask of Glass (1957) in 2017. So yes, it has taken nearly 2 years to get around to reading one of her books, but hey I got there in the end and I am very glad that I did too!

The opening chapters set up the chain of events which lead to redhead American, Laura Selby, coasting her car down a mountainside road to Geneva, in near darkness. She has of course taken the route less travelled, in a car not designed for such a journey and has managed to run out of petrol, hence the coasting. She is on her way to Italy for a holiday, whilst waiting for the man she loves to complete his divorce. Laura perhaps reaches the pinnacle of foolishness when she stops her car due to sensing something is wrong. After a fumbled exit from the car, she gets around to the bonnet and the second chapter of this book ends thusly:

‘And then the car, its brake released as she tripped against it, pushed her gently into the nothingness, and slowly, almost reluctantly, followed her over the edge.’

Never has such a tragic moment been written so wonderfully in such an understated tone!

Yet readers might be confused when the next chapter switches to DI Medford, who is given a new case; namely a woman’s body has turned up in a trunk in Banford. It has been in there for 2 weeks, so decomposition is advanced. Nevertheless, her red hair, amongst other things has remained… A missing person’s report from Laura’s fiancé, John Sefton-Smith forges a link. But is it the right one? Is the body really Laura’s? Yet how did it end up in the trunk? It is not long before unfortunate circumstantial evidence leads to the arrest of John for Laura’s murder. But is a miscarriage of justice about to take place?

Overall Thoughts

So, as you can see from my synopsis, we have quite an unusual case to solve. The reader certainly has a key piece of information that the characters spend most of the book trying to uncover, but the question for us, is how does it match up with the body in the trunk? Any reader’s theory has to deal with that body. But it is even Laura’s body? And if it isn’t whose could it be? Through posing such a mystifying set of circumstances, Roth produces a delightful variation on the whodunnit formula.

Added to the interesting puzzle factor, Roth’s writing style is a delight, with its understated strain of comedy. The reader encounters this from the very first page when Laura takes her irritation at herself for picking such a rambling route, out on her car:

‘Only the English would permit sidelights that were so pale and nondescript as to be non-existent. Another manifestation of understatement, perhaps. Or, more likely, some of their damned politeness. She had a momentary but vivid picture of an English car manufacturer saying to his factory head, ‘Very little voltage in the sidelights, mind you. Don’t want to disturb people, you know.’’

Whilst the ending veers slightly into sensationalism and melodrama, this does not impact the romance element of the book, with Roth taking an unvarnished approach to relationships. Laura is not giddy about John and certainly does not wear rose coloured spectacles. In fact, the early narrative says that: ‘She found him rather a source of bewildering irritation, spiced by the moments when he looked quietly at her…’

So why did I not give this book full marks? Maybe I’m being picky, but the ending for me was imperfect. The solution works out fine, but for me it was too rushed, especially the moment of revelation. This rushed feeling is perhaps exacerbated by the number of subgenres this story is cramming in. Moira at Clothes in Books sums it up well when she talks about ‘Roth’s strange combination of rural police procedural, international suspense, and romance thriller. And throw in courtroom drama when her fiancé (John who gave her the scarf) is tried for her murder.’ For the majority of the book this merging of subgenres works well, but it is in the final third of the book, where the two latter subgenres are vying for space, a vying which makes it mark on the story’s denouement.

However, I wouldn’t let this put you off trying the book, as overall it is a really great story and I am looking forward even more now to reading the second book I have by Roth in my TBR pile. There are a number of copies for under £5 online, so I recommend snapping up a copy asap!

Rating: 4.5/5

Calendar of Crime: November (3) Primary Action Takes Place in this Month

4 comments

  1. I very much agree with your review – and would recommend her to readers, her books may not be perfect but they are enjoyable and blessedly short.

    Liked by 2 people

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