This read is somewhat out of season, but you can read snow bound country house mysteries at any time of the year, can’t you?
Rath is a new to me author, but Curtis Evans writes the introduction to this coachwhip reprint, so I was clued up in no time! From his introduction I learnt that Rath was quite the busy bee publishing 13 detective novels between 1935 and 1947, with 11 of those books occurring within the first seven years. Then again, her aim was always to type ‘a thousand words every night until her current book was complete.’ Rath had two series, and today’s read comes from her Rocky Allan quintet, which follows a deputy sheriff operating in a rural part of northern California. Her other series features a husband and wife amateur sleuthing team, Michael and Valerie Dundas, with the former working as a couturier, though their cases mainly occur in San Francisco. Curtis engagingly discusses Rath’s family history and life story, as well as giving an informative overview of her writing career. I was particularly interested to read about a collaborative novel she took part in entitled, The Marble Forest (1951), which she did as part of the Mystery Writers of America. It is also worth noting that like poor Margaret Ann Hubbard, Rath also had a husband which never quite managed to get around to reading her books. Well I am assuming this based on the dedication for Death at Dayton’s Folly: ‘To Carl who does not like detective stories.’
As I mentioned above the action for this story takes place at a country house, a former hotel in fact, which is now a private residence called Dayton’s Folly. The snow is coming in fast and Rocky Allan, (who is off work sick due to a car accident three months ago), decides to go along with his friend to Dayton Folly to drop off some supplies. They are not there five minutes when Alfred Leale, the family patriarch, keels over in the snow after taking a snifter from his brandy filled flask. One of his house guests, Theophilus Pope, is quickly sure he died of poisoning and it is soon revealed that Pope had been invited along by Leale, as a form of guard, since he believed his life was in danger. And from one of his own family to boot. A jolly afternoon of sledging has taken a decidedly dark turn…
Yet this is only the beginning for Pope and Allan, who quickly join forces with Eleanor Gannon, who was acting as a nurse to Leale’s sister, Georgina. Between Pope and Gannon the reader and Allan get the inside story on the Leale family history. Rapidly they are snowed in, the telephone lines go down and the power cuts out, with no hope of outside help for a couple of days, and naturally the killer has not finished quite yet… But with the family members closing ranks, will Pope and Allan be able to break their silence and find out the truth?
Curtis comments on Rath’s use of local colour in his introduction and it is an aspect of the book that she uses to good effect, in adding variation to the country house mystery setup. The area of sleuths is one such place it works well. Rocky, whilst being deputy sheriff, is also a railroad stoker and has come into an inheritance as well. Curtis sums him up as ‘a paragon of manliness,’ and he does indeed get his moments to shine in a heroic sort of way.
Yet I wouldn’t recommend making the same mistake as Harold and Joseph do in the story, of assuming that it is Pope who has all the brains and that Rocky is just the brawn. Rath in fact writes that Rocky’s ‘air of amiable simplicity was very deceiving; it made people underrate his intelligence.’ Rocky at times seems unsure of how to move the investigation forward, but he still offers plenty of sensible ideas and picks up a great deal of information. It is he who thinks to deprive Harold of his whiskey stash in order to get him to talk. Rocky is happy to let Pope take the lead in the case, but at the same time Pope is not a pushy leader and often seems to be operating more in the background. Despite coming from diverse social backgrounds, with Pope coming across as more of a Campion/Wimsey type figure, the pair of them rub along very well together and it is other inhabitants in the house who clash with Rocky. Yet Rocky gives as good as he gets and is a dab hand with cutting remarks:
“Have you some incident in mind,” Eleanor said pleasantly, “that you particularly don’t want me to tell?”
“Certainly not. But outsiders don’t always— understand a family as its individual members understand each other.” [Harold Dunn]
“Seems to me,” Rocky said amiably, “that families that go around poisonin’ each other are right likely to be misunderstood by the gen’ral public.”
Pope is not a private detective in the gumshoe mould but is a man of private means whom has experience of murder cases and is someone who can be trusted to act with discretion. It seems a shame that Rath only has him feature in one more book before Rocky goes it alone in solving crimes, but I guess maybe she felt Rocky had greater originality and mileage than Pope. Perhaps Pope’s character would confine her to only writing certain types of mysteries. Whilst Rocky does take his lead from Pope it is interesting to have access into some of his thoughts later on in the story:
‘He liked Pope, and the man was sort of pathetic. He didn’t know exactly why he thought that, except that it seemed as if Pope must always be an onlooker and that must get to be a lonely sort of thing.’
I felt this was an unusual point of view to express, for the 30s, as normally the great amateur detective tends to be revered or at least seen as an enviable figure to be. But maybe Rath was weaving in a minor note of the struggles Wimsey faces in Sayers’ books. After all, Rath did read detective fiction extensively, so it wouldn’t be unlikely for her to have come across a novel by Sayers.
The Leales make for a very good family of suspects. They are fairly cosmopolitan, and Alfred obtained his wealth through the lumber trade. Yet despite his working background his youngest daughter, Norma, is a fairly spoilt young woman, who wouldn’t be able to stand on her own two feet for five seconds. Her laziness is self-evident, as is her selfishness and tendency to rely on her looks to get her out of trouble. Our very first description of her is rather telling:
‘There was a girl, a tiny little thing with yellow hair under a red beret. Pretty as a picture, even in one of those funny one-piece suits that looked more like a baby’s sleepers than anything else.’
Her older half-sister, Beatrice is something of a contrast. The pair of them are a little reminiscent of the two brothers in the parable of the lost son, though I wouldn’t stretch the similarities too far. She is said to be ‘the only one who ever did care for’ her father and is shown to be the dutiful daughter who works hard and is somewhat put upon. Joseph, their brother is another contrast, being revealed as something of a weakling emotionally and rather ‘hysterical.’ Additionally, when it comes to Harold Dunn, Alfred’s cousin, I was reminded of Alfred Crackenthorpe from 4:50 from Paddington.
Georgina is in a camp of her own, being set up as an invalid. Yet this impression is soon dismantled, when it seems she is not as sick as she makes out, and her lack of sentimentality over her brother’s death, soon exposes a keen appetite to be involved in the investigation. But how much can Rocky and Pope trust her? What is she holding back?
Alfred, our primary murder victim, is on the one hand your typical controlling patriarch. Yet he also seems to have a far greater insight into his family than that character type normally has. He is also not oblivious to his faults in how his children have been raised. Nevertheless, it is his pride which seals his fate, his belief that he can sort out the mess without having to loosen his grip on his dependents.
Interestingly his death occurs very early on in the book, so we don’t get much of a runup to it. Consequently, we come to the investigation with a very clean slate in terms of the suspects and the potential grudges they could have had against him. I found this approach quite refreshing, as very often the reader is shown various reasons for someone being bumped off, before their actual demise.
Timetabling events and gaining alibis only goes so far in this investigation, and Pope and Rocky have to cross over into a more psychological approach in that they must try and unnerve the suspects, as well as crank up the tension levels and mutual animosity, in order to get the suspects to boil over and reveal what they have been holding back. I think this is an approach which Rath utilises very effectively and she writes it in an engaging manner, ensuring the reader keeps being drip fed new pieces of information to work with.
I would categorise this mystery as a family drama and Rath makes it a pace-filled one, though not in a hackneyed sort of way. Her prose style is not densely written, yet neither is it too simplistic. Descriptive flourishes are used where required and therefore create more of an impact on the reader. The plot is well put together and I think Rath makes interesting use of a minor character, which I didn’t see coming. I’m not sure the reader will figure everything out that Pope does, but like me, they might get a hunch about a certain character.
So, all in all I very much enjoyed this one and look forward to trying more by Rath at some point. Thankfully Coachwhip have reprinted a number of her titles, which is very handy considering that earlier editions are somewhat thin on the ground and exorbitantly priced.
Source: Review Copy (Coachwhip Publications)