Richard Shattuck was actually a woman called Dora Shattbuck and I enjoyed Anthony Boucher’s tongue in cheek comment, (in the 1960s reprint introduction), on the use of male pennames by female authors:
‘It used to be an article in the creed of most publishers that you can’t sell a mystery novel with a woman’s by-line – a theory that would appear to be based upon the financial fiasco of the works of Mary Roberts Rinehart, Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie.’
Boucher is also on the money when he explains that this debut novel fits in the 1930s and 1940s literary atmosphere in which ‘it was still possible to be wholly irreverent and wildly funny about murder.’ Though how successful that humour is, is a different matter…
Ty and Sue have just got married and are staying at the La Cucaracha Hotel, for their honeymoon, a place run by their friend Milly Westover. In fact, I don’t think they’ve travelled far for their honeymoon, as the hotel seems full of local people and long-stay residents, who the couple know. Eventually Ty gets Sue back to their room, but she is soon off again to give Milly some jewellery to put in her safe. Unsurprisingly, considering the amount of alcohol everyone seems to be drinking, Sue returns to the wrong bedroom and gets into the wrong bed. But worse is to follow when Sue realises that her mismatched bedfellow is dead… (stabbed in the back with a bayonet.)
From here on in the plot takes the reader on a wild and ridiculous ride as Ty and various other friends attempt to dispose of the unlikeable murder victim, in order to spare the hotel, Sue and the man whose room the body was found in. This plan backfires multiple times and in a spectacular fashion and it is not long before the plan morphs into one of not getting wrongfully arrested by the police and trying to find the real killer.
Struggling to get rid of a corpse that you haven’t murdered is not an uncommon trope for the more comically styled mystery novel. The Wooden Overcoat (1951) by Pamela Branch and Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry (1955) spring to mind and to an extent today’s read operates within this same sphere. This book is also a screwball comedy, of sorts. Yet, the reason for my more qualifying and hesitating remarks, is that I don’t think Shattuck’s story embodies many, (any?), of the successful components a screwball comedy needs to work really well. In a nutshell this book is just too silly and nonsensical. The rationale for relocating the body is a bit flimsy and Ty and his friends’ attempts to move the body and find the killer are even shoddier. Their inability to decide where to put the body beggars belief. The amount of alcohol they consume on a daily basis naturally does not help them in their endeavours, but other writers such as Craig Rice reveal that a tight plot can still be maintained regardless of how intoxicated the characters are. A tight and carefully controlled plot is ironically crucial to a successful zany screwball mystery, as evidenced by the work of Alice Tilton. The well-maintained control prevents the bizarre events in the book from derailing the plot as a whole.
Moving on to the characters, I feel Shattuck plays around with stereotypes at times, particularly when it comes to Ty and Sue. It is Ty who is awkwardly blushing at the start of the book due Sue’s more forward nature, shall we say, and it is a little telling that his opinion of his new wife is that she ‘was more like a bee: something small and fragile-looking you take to your heart and wish you hadn’t.’ Sue temporarily loses some of her aplomb when she discovers the body, but she returns to form later. Whilst everyone else is frantically trying to decide where to put the body she asks the question: ‘Do you think it’s a sign of a shallow nature […] that in spite of all this mess I’m really quite happy, deep inside of me?’ Because that’s a normal reaction…
I initially had high hopes for Sue, as unlike the male characters around her she does make some sensible suggestions early on in the story, about the types of questions to ask people and how to go about doing it. Alas her page presence after this point takes a steep nosedive and the majority of the book is far more focused on Ty and his friends Beppo and Butterball, as they inadequately attempt to do some amateur sleuthing. Though surprisingly despite the chaos and unnecessary aggro they cause no one in the book criticises their behaviour. I perhaps wondered if this was a gender thing, as I am sure female characters of the time wouldn’t get away with half the ridiculous antics those three get up to.
As John at Pretty Sinister blog suggests, the humour in this story is rather hit and miss, with an emphasis on the miss. Whilst there are moments where a line of understatements works well, such as when Ty and his friends get caught out snooping…
‘There are few things you can say when a man finds you in his house, reading his love-letters by flashlight. A casual remark seems out of place, no apology is adequate and you are in no position to start anything on your own account.’
… a great deal of the humour instead comes across as a bit odd or weird, (or maybe just very of its time, with its comic portrayal of a communist for instance).
At the start of the mystery Ty declares that he is ‘good at analysing and sifting, separating the chaff from the wheat.’ But perhaps if he had laid off the booze a little sooner, he might have solved the case quicker. At least he gets there in the end. Although I think Shattuck is possibly the first mystery writer to have a detective catch the killer without his trousers on. Is this the most undignified reveal of a killer ever?
See also: John at Pretty Sinister blog has also reviewed this title, collecting interesting earlier reviews of the book and information on the story’s title which alludes to Coleridge’s poem, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.