Today’s read takes place in Manhattan, focusing on the extended Hadden family, who come from theatre stock and for whom this is still the mainstay of their income. Yet before we arrive at their home, Riverside Drive, we are whisked to the office of Private Detective William Farland, who to be honest is not a particularly enthusiastic member of the profession, having got the business through a friend to repay a debt. If anything he is far more interested in playwriting. Yet it is as a private detective that Cathy Hadden goes to meet him. She is convinced that someone within her home was trying to frighten her. There was the episode with the dodgy brakes, the mysterious midnight visits to her bedroom and the repeated cases of food poisoning. Farland is reluctant to take on the case until he realises who she is related to, namely Terratta Hadden; a temperamental, yet devastatingly beautiful actress. Yet it is Dominick Hadden, another actor, who rules the household, benevolently, though with much control. Equally once Farland arrives at the Hadden household, he is further lured into taking on the case when he realises that Dominick has been given his latest play to read. Could this finally be his big break?
Nevertheless within 24 hours of arriving at Cathy’s home, a violent death is committed, which puts a very different spin on the situation. Captain Rhine is in charge of the case, who reminds me of Christianna Brand’s Inspector Cockerill. Though Rhine certainly has the cards stacked against him with very tight-lipped suspects and his forensics a washout. Instead he sees that he will have to strip down the masks and façades that the others have built up around themselves, in order to reveal a ruthless killer.
To be honest the first few chapters of this book do require a bit more than your average concentration levels, as Roth unpacks in an intense manner, the various family members and how they relate to Cathy, as well as finding out Farland’s role in the story. Consequently, I think it took me a little longer to get into this book. I think what helped me turn the corner was the party scene in which Farland meets more of the family members face to face as this scene allows Roth to use her wonderful characterisation skills to great effect. We have Farland’s disillusionment with Terratta as when he meets his idol, he discovers her to be an incredibly snide and unkind person, who enjoys belittling Cathy. Farland is also brilliant at putting his foot in things, with his tongue running far ahead of his brain. I also think it is interesting of Roth to do a theatrical mystery, yet not actually have any of the book set in a theatre. Though I think the Hadden family make quite a good enough stage of their own home…
Roth also has a little play around with structure in this book, as although the majority of the book is narrated by Farland, his narrative is book ended with Cathy’s point of view. With the prologue I think Roth intends to set up a number of expectations within the reader, whilst with the epilogue I think Roth is giving the reader the chance to re-assess the situation and characters, but in light of the mystery’s solution.
Farland is an intriguing part of the plot, though I fear he also carries some of its weaknesses. In some ways he is neither one thing nor the other. He’s not a full-on playwright, though there is this interesting passage when the family hear a scream upstairs and go running to see what has happened:
‘There was something insanely funny about the scene, and I cursed my writer’s mind as I pounded on Tony’s slipper-clad heels. This was no time to be taking notes of how people in panic behave. Especially since truth, as usual, was completely unadaptable.’
And the text emphasises how strongly he is not much of detective. Captain Rhine utilises him as more of Watson/observer/decoy. Yet even then, despite his lack of skills and interest, Farland occasionally suddenly bursts from his wall flower role and uncovers crucial pieces of evidence and it seems he is extraordinarily lucky in what he finds. From his actions it is hard to decide what role Roth was intending for him, as he sort of does a little bit everything and I do wonder whether the private detective element of his backstory is merely a means of getting him into the Hadden house. I’m also not sure whether Roth was entirely comfortable with the conventional detective novel structure. So I think on balance I prefer her novel, Shadow of a Lady (1957), which is a bit more unconventional, as her strengths are more palpable as a consequence.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Colour in the Title
Calendar of Crime: March (3) Primary Action Takes Place in this Month