Disney is an author I have only tried once before, with the title Family Skeleton (1949). The sleuthing figure is an insurance claim operative and I really enjoyed it. Yet I’ve not tried anything by her since, though this mostly due to her lack of availability. So I was quite looking forward to this read. The Criminal Record review for this book in The Saturday Review also seemed to be reasonably positive about it, which always helps: ‘plot tricky as expected, characters molded to program; boy-girl complications […] formula job, with switcheroo.’ What is the switcheroo you ask? Well I’m not going to tell you! But this is what I can tell you…
The story takes place in Somerset, Connecticut and events focus on a boarding house on Drum Street. It was once a well to do street which has now ‘gone to seed.’ Kate and Aggie Scanlon run the house in question and bear the mark of genteel poverty, which becomes the source of much comic resentment and envy between the sisters and their widowed richer sister in law Ellen. Suffice to say she is a chronic boaster when it comes to her offspring, in particular her daughter who has got herself engaged to the highly eligible Hugh Lockwood. The Scanlon sisters forlornly hope that their orphaned niece, Teresa, who they have raised, will be able to bag a similar if not better catch. I say forlorn hope as Teresa does not share their similar obsession with getting married.
Social comedy set up we then get the suspicious death of one of the Scanlon’s tenants. A Richard Lovejoy, who is down at heel and who frequently comes home drunk, despite Aggie’s protestations, (she somewhat feels sorry him). He meets his end when it seems he fell out of his bedroom window one night, after returning home having had too many to drink. The police are happy to write it off as an alcohol related accident. But the imaginative and fanciful Aggie is not convinced, fuelled by many hours of detective fiction reading. And in fairness to her the Detective Sergeant has some qualms too. But the police’s inability to track the man’s history somewhat stymies any further investigation from their quarter. Aggie is somewhat disappointed by their lack of zeal going as far as thinking:
‘Where was the patient unearthing of facts, the exhaustive study of the smallest details that led to the solution of the cases in her true detective magazines? There’d been none of it here.’
In fact, I would go as far as saying that the plot hits such a rut that no police activity can get it out. What is required is the zany and far fetched antics of certain boarding house co-owner, whose nature of being something of a liability forces the truth out into the opening.
Are all of her hunches correct? No.
Does she get herself into embarrassing pickles? Most definitely yes!
But how good a mystery does the reader get? Read on to find out…
The best aspects of the book originate from the female characters and their interactions. Disney deftly portrays older women who feel like they’ve been left on the shelf, but who still want a bit of adventure in their life. Woven into these characters is a strong vein of Austen’s Mrs Bennet, as they do their utmost to help their younger loved ones find and hold on to the right match. This brings out a lot of comic moments, with Ellen in particular, as her social snobbery colours her whole outlook. She is only upset about the tenant’s death because of the possible harm it may cause her daughter’s engagement and when Aggie turns up on her doorstep coming out of a police car when Hugh’s mother and sister are there, you can well imagine her reaction… Yet the Scanlon sisters are not without their own brand of snobbishness. Disney does a good job at portraying the nuances of this particular trait.
As a character study, as social comedy this book is highly enjoyable. But unfortunately when it comes to the mystery aspect it falls down somewhat. So much of the book’s energy is poured into the other two narrative elements, that there is not enough left over to fuel the investigation plot. I would say it even stagnates and it is not until the final quarter that events start moving forward, which unsurprisingly is a bit too late. The solution is a good one if you consider it in isolation to the rest of the book, but when you don’t the gap between the ending and the previous story is far too great a one to successfully leap. The police work is annoyingly not completely off the page, but just enough on the page to know they’re doing something, but not enough to have any idea what they’re finding out. Moreover, Disney has to rely on the killer getting the wind up for little reason, in order to expose their villainy.
See also: Joel who writes the blog I Should Be Reading has also reviewed this title here and who seems to have enjoyed this book more than I did.
Oh and if you’re wondering who the blonde Monroe figure is on the cover, I have to disappoint you and point out she doesn’t actually feature in the book. Moreover, despite their being a cat and three kittens in the Scanlon household, I would hardly say they warrant front cover depiction.