Anyone else not heard of Ruth Fenisong? Hopefully it is not just me. Yet Stark House has once again brought another new author to my attention, an author whom Anthony Boucher described as a ‘virtually faultless pro.’ Curtis Evans writes the introduction for this story and he has also written about this writer on his blog, The Passing Tramp, (the links for which can be found here and here.) Fenisong wrote 20 of her 22 crime novels between 1942 and 1962. After 1962 she only published a children’s story and then two other crime novels. Her series sleuth, Gridley Nelson features in 13 of her first 20 novels. Curtis writes that:
‘Fenisong somewhat romanticizes Grid Nelson, who as one of fortune’s favourites is even blessed with an independent income in the fashion of the charming aristocratic gentleman sleuths associated with the British Crime Queens Dorothy L Sayers […] Margery Allingham […] and Ngaio Marsh […], the world which Nelson inhabits nevertheless is a grittier one than that of Wimsey and his gang, more akin to that which one finds in the American mid-century police procedurals of Ed McBain and Hillary Waugh.’
It appears she had a theatrical background, working for the Federal Theatre Project for a while, before it was shut down by the House Un-American Activities Committee. She also did puppet theatre work, including a marionette play of Doyle’s ‘The Speckled Band.’ Her detective novel Murder Need a Face (1942) uses this background.
‘Mike Carmody operates an expensive weight reducing salon in New York City. He’s got it made – an attractive wife, a sexy secretary, and a group of very rich women who hang on his every word. Then his stepbrother Vance shows up. And suddenly Carmody is being accused of a hit-and-run fatality, and having to answer a lot of pointed questions from Police Captain Gridley Nelson. Then there is a death in the group, an overdose that could be suicide… and murder. It’s crazy enough that this police captain thinks he hit someone with his car. Now Nelson is really poking his nose into Carmody’s business. And who knows what Vance is up to.’
This novel does not have the typical structure of a detective story, though it is indeed one. Gridley Nelson’s investigation starts with small beginnings – an anonymous note which points the finger at Mike for a hit and run fatality. Yet it is not with Gridley that the book commences, as instead the narrative opens with the arrival of Vance Manning, who we first see through the eyes of Mike’s secretary:
‘To her he suggested a type encountered in the fashionable places of the world. She had never visited those places, but in illustrated magazines she had met his counterpart wearing swimming trunks and sunglasses, or slacks and cashmere jackets.’
Though perhaps this says more about her than him, as his exterior manner is deceptively charming. His presence in the book is often at times quite minimal, yet the reader soon begins to spot his activities behind the scenes. We also get to view things from the perspective of the reducing salon customers, who in fact become integral to the mystery as it expands and develops. Fenisong’s depiction of this unusual milieu is fascinatingly detailed and the female psychology presented gives the narrative a sense of realism.
Mike does eventually emerge on the page and it does not take the reader long to realise that Mike’s public persona is somewhat different from his private self. There are hints of gambling debts which he is trying to keep hidden from his wife and in fact he is not set up in a hugely sympathetic fashion. He is unkind to his secretary lover and he is more than happy to use psychological ploys to get the women to put on more weight, so they have to stay on his courses for longer. Perhaps Mike is presented to us this way in order to affect how we view him once he begins to be beset by problems. Perhaps his unlikableness makes us feel less distressed by the seemingly sinister plans Vance has for him? However, Fenisong puts a slight spoke in the wheel when it is suggested that Vance was a sadistic stepbrother when Mike was a child. Yet suffice to say maybe this isn’t the full story… Vance’s unpleasant advances towards Mike and his life take a drip by drip approach, which is highly effective in turning up the pressure on Mike, who is also feeling the heat from the police. Unsurprisingly Mike does not have a perfect relationship with his wife, Cecil. Nevertheless, I think Fenisong presents Cecil’s attitude towards her husband in an interestingly ambiguous manner. There is no love loss, yet there is a desire to remain in partnership.
It takes until near the end of the story to figure out what Mike is and is not guilty of doing and as events unravel, the plot’s tension cranks up a level. Is he guilty for all or some of the crimes which have happened? Or is he an unpleasant man being set up? And if he is the latter will he cause his own downfall in a bid to avoid false arrest? Fenisong delivers a surprising answer on this score and the ending of this book put me in mind of the work of Jean Potts. The word unexpected also springs to mind. Curtis is correct in saying that it is ‘boldly unorthodox,’ and I would add that it avoids giving the reader any sense of reassurance. You could say it is troubling in an intriguing and interesting way. The method of death is also a first for me, though like Curtis and Boucher I cannot comment on it. All I can do is recommend you pick up the book for yourself and give it a go. I am very much looking forward to my next Fenisong read, Deadlock (1952).
Source: Review Copy (Stark House)