This is a new-to-me author, though in my head I somewhat muddle this writer with Dorothy/Doris Miles Disney and Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Clearly Dorothy was a popular name! I did a little bit of pre-reading on the writer and came across her page on the Gadetection website. Mike Grost writes that she is ‘one of Rinehart’s most gifted followers,’ and having now read the book I can see a number of tropes which would justify this link. Mike then goes into the distinct writing periods of Disney, suggesting that ‘her first two mystery novels are exercises in pure mystery plotting’ (Death in the Back Seat (1936) and Strawstack (1939)). The latter of these two is even described as ‘Disney’s masterpiece.’ I have to admit I was a little gutted that my title was not one of these two books.
When it comes to Disney’s second writing period Mike says she ‘veered off into social commentary,’ with titles such as The Golden Swan Murder (1939) and The Balcony (1940). Again, the latter of two is cited as the better of the two, with a nod still being made towards the puzzle plot mystery. Thirty Days Hath September (1942) is considered ‘an oddity’ being ‘full of Disney’s imaginative puzzle plot construction.’ Though Mikes opines that ‘none of the ideas here are as plausible as those in Disney’s earlier books.’ Then the bit I dreaded: ‘Next comes a period of decline’ and Crimson Friday is the first title cited. So, with this sense of foreboding I began today’s read…
The village* of Merristone has something of an ‘Enigma:’ in the form of Mrs V Moran, who has rented a house there. Despite the best efforts of the village’s gossips, no one has discovered anything about her, not even what the V in her name stands for. Her maid, who does all of her shopping, is as close mouthed as her employer. Mrs Moran despite being something of a recluse wears very outlandish clothing and walks her cats on leads. We learn all of this from the story’s narrator, Jane Blake, who is staying with her husband Alan, in his Aunt Mildred’s home, whilst their own newly bought property is being remodelled. The usual renovating problems ensue, fuelled by the involvement of extended family members. There are some minor episodes of interest, but the main event kicks off in January. Contrary to prior behaviour Mrs Moran invites Alan and Jane to tea one day. They are pushed for time but are compelled to accept. Tea is an awkward affair with Mrs Moran coming across as a pitiable and even more eccentric figure, not least because of all the fibs she is caught out in telling. Alan and Jane returned home to a surprisingly strained dinner with their own family members. There are many undercurrents and unspoken tensions wrestling beneath the surface, but they eventually break free when Alan takes everyone to see their property in progress, and to their horror they discover Mrs Moran’s maid, Hannah, in the cellar murdered – her head having been crushed.
Now the lie Jane’s brother in law made about where he was earlier that evening gains bigger proportions, as does the subterfuges Alan’s aunt begins to indulge in. Then there’s Sarah and Ruth who all have things on their mind and who seem to be holding information back. Yet the biggest surprise emerges when Alan, Ruth and Jane make their way to Mrs Moran’s house and find her not only out, but with her bedroom ransacked and her cats tied up inside her closet. There is worse to come though, for Alan and his family, as the local Sheriff’s initial investigation unearths an increasing number of pieces of evidence which tie the victim, the missing Mrs Moran and Selby, Ruth’s husband. Yet as his arrest approaches he refuses to defend himself or provide any reasonable explanation for things. Alan and the others are sure he is innocent and set out to prove so. Nevertheless, this pursuit for the truth does not assuage the growing anxiety that one of their close circle is a killer…
*This is an American village not too far from New York, so I imagine for UK readers we need to envisage something more town sized and despite the book referring to Alan and Jane’s home as a cottage, given the proportions of it, we again need to think bigger!
The title of this story has more than one meaning. It refers, firstly, to Mrs Moran’s wardrobe arrangement, designating one colour for each day of the week. Hannah dies on a Friday, so the crimson element takes on an additional gruesome significance. One assumes this was intentional on the part of Disney.
The case in this book is partially one of identity, as the Sheriff and the others try to figure out who Mrs Moran really was. I think this tale had the potential to be a really clever mystery, as it seems Mrs Moran had her own criminal plot afoot, yet it was derailed or transformed by the villainous designs of others. The tricky part for the sleuths and the reader is to separate the original criminal scheme from its eventual reality, transformed by the actions of outside parties. Deciding who these parties are is also another question to be answered, as is the matter of whether Mrs Moran is alive or dead; innocent or guilty. Furthermore, there is the additional mystery of the unknown person in the background who keeps trying to direct the investigators’ attention, with planted evidence, down certain paths to reveal specific pieces of information. Again, the reader has to decide who they might and what their real purpose is.
So why do I suggest this book had the potential to be a great mystery? To begin with Disney reveals her hand too early when it comes to key parts of the solution, either that or my sleuthing skills were on fire today, as I alighted on two significant parts of the solution very early on in the case, and when it comes to one of these elements I think Disney is very clumsy in trying to hide it later on.
Furthermore, I think the plot is perhaps a little too cluttered with mini dramas. Not on a Carolyn Wells scale but just enough that it becomes a bit much, and this impacts the final quarter of the novel. Equally when it comes to this concluding section the solution is unfortunately dragged out too much. Oh, and my final niggle is the very jarring light-hearted note the book attempts to end on. It didn’t really work for me, given what had just preceded it.
Nevertheless, Disney does a good job of depicting and developing the psychological toll on the family, who try to work independently of one another for differing and at times opposing goals. Jane is an effective narrator, as she is able to plausibly provide the reader with a reasonable amount of information, without her artificially putting her nose into things.
Whilst this might not be the idealistic reading high note to end 2019’s reading on, I don’t think I will write off trying Disney’s work again in the future. Though maybe I will keep my eye out for one of her earlier books.