Stone Dead (1947) by Patrick Laing

Patrick Laing is the penname of Amelia Reynolds Long and in the manner of Ellery queen, Patrick Laing is also the name of Long’s series sleuth. As well as writing over 30 mystery novels Laing, (to stick to her penname), wrote science fiction too. To find out more about her detective stories click here to see a page dedicated to her, containing a list of works as well as original dust jackets.

My reason for reading this book is because it was recommended to me by Xavier Lechard, who writes the blog At the Villa Rose. Not only did he recommend it, but he also wished for my opinion on a writer whose reputation has not fared well over time. Whilst Xavier finds much to enjoy in her work, others have bestowed ‘alternative classic’ status upon Laing’s work, and I have the feeling that this is not a compliment…

So I was quite curious as to what the book was going to be like. Was it going to be a book which is so bad it’s good? Was I going to be painfully befuddled by a tale written in a similar vein to the work of Harry Stephen Keeler?  Or was I going to be slogging through a tedious narrative that was so boring to read that it hurt? Well Xavier has been feverishly biting his fingernails all day wondering what my verdict will be, but first I ought to give you the gist of the what Stone Dead is all about…

This is a college set mystery and it commences with the faculty deciding to expel the notorious student Corinne Douglas. Not due to any scandalous behaviour, she has been too clever to get caught in that respect, but because she went AWOL from her dorms one weekend. Corinne is described as ‘a Circe with a cigarette’ and as having a ‘face like an angel and a mind like a sewer.’ She changes men as often as she changes her socks and despite it being assumed that she is engaged to Bobby Curtis, there are still other male admirers buzzing around her, including Ian McGregor; the younger brother of a college teacher. As the faculty meeting closes one teacher predicts that Corinne is ‘fairly crying aloud to be murdered.’ Yet the first death we encounter is not murder, but suicide, with Curtis found dead in his room, having shot himself. Did Corinne throw him over for another?

But Corinne cannot be found for her police interview and when she has been found it is clear she won’t be answering any questions. Did Curtis kill her before he killed himself? Was she killed by another out of revenge for Curtis’ suicide? Or was she killed to thwart her plans to reverse the decision to expel her? These are some of the questions Police Lieutenant Kenneth McDermott and psychology teacher Patrick Laing face.

Overall Thoughts

So shall I put Xavier out his misery? Is it a thumbs up or a thumbs down? (No skipping ahead to my final rating).

Well on the whole I am quite baffled. Baffled that if the rest of Laing’s work is of a similar ilk to this, why she is so derided. To be honest I can’t find any aspect which should provoke so strong a reaction.

Beginning with her amateur sleuth, who narrates the story, I think Patrick meets expectations for this role well. Although being a psychology teacher this angle is not overused in the book and Patrick employs plenty of tangible sleuthing. Using his braille slate, (he’s blind), he pulls together the questions which need answering about the two deaths, questions which aid the reader in tackling the plot’s puzzle. Laing, the writer, provides an array of different clues, some verbal, others physical and the explanation behind the state Corrine’s body is found in, is well thought out, reminding me a little of the principle at work in Ellery Queen’s The Chinese Orange Mystery.

I think Laing would see herself as a puzzle focused mystery writer as she is recorded as having said:

“A lot of mystery writers resented that hard-boiled school; I know I did myself. My agent tried to get me to write it, and I said I simply can’t do it. To me the real mystery story is the mystery story with a good puzzle, and is not necessarily steeped in blood, and a lot of the mystery writers felt the same way. There was quite a division of thought there for some time.”

Yet I wouldn’t say she presents a dry logic puzzle, nor does she write a prudish cosy mystery. There is an undertone which is quite matter of fact, without being graphic. Unlike several books I have reviewed this year Laing does not have her characters make sudden mental leaps to arrive at the solution. Instead you can see how they made their steps towards it and the evidence they used to get there. This is a compact novel, but the investigation did not feel truncated. Laing gives her readers a good range of suspects to go at, though this is perhaps not the most deceptive of mysteries. Nevertheless, I think Laing still delivered a mystery which was well put together. In fact, I would say she writes a much more interesting murder investigation than Ngaio Marsh and without hesitation I would much rather read a book by Laing than by Gladys Mitchell.

So Xavier you can breathe easy and relax. I definitely enjoyed this book.

Rating: 4.25/5

17 comments

  1. I’m both glad and relieved that you enjoyed this book, Kate, as all the negative reviews of Laing’s work I had read had me seriously questioning my good sense! I too am puzzled as to why this writer elicited such a strong negative reaction – I wouldn’t claim her to be a genius but she is certainly a better detective story writer than she is given credit for.

    One thing I like most about the books I’ve read – only three, as they are quite hard to find – is the way she handles her character’s disability – having a blind character as the main character is already no piece of cake but having him also as the narrator is quite a challenge. I do think she succeeds overall, as she is able to make the characters come to life even though we never get to know what they look like.

    Another commendable thing in my opinion: Patrick Laing is a very humane character with a great level of empathy extending to murderers themselves. Sleuthing is no jolly good fun to him and the result rarely brings unmitigated joy.

    I suggest you follow this one with the only Laing novel currently in print, “The Lady is Dead” which happens to be the final book in the series. It is not the strongest puzzle she ever devised but it displays all of the other virtues you highlighted. Also you’ll undoubtedly be as happy as I was to find out he is now happily married.

    P.S.: The quote at the end of your review is another argument supporting Mike Grost’s thesis that the demise of traditional mysteries and rise of the hardboiled school after WWII was at least partly engineered by publishers rather than the sole result of a change of mood among crime writers. It may explain why some notable or promising orthodox writers of the period suddenly stopped writing altogether. Who knows?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really was expecting something objectionable to turn up or for the plot to be so shoddy it would collapse even on a day with no wind. So yes I join you in the puzzlement!
      One thing I forgot to mention in my review which your comment has reminded me of is how Patrick acts as a blind sleuth. His actions as a sleuth are not superhero in the way Carrados can be, and they’re often not even unique to him being blind. His interest in smells is probably the only one. His blindness is also often something you can nearly forget about, as the narrative is very dialogue focused.
      Thanks for the next novel recommendation.

      Liked by 1 person

      • There are three other blind detectives I’ve encountered and with the exception of one they also focus on the sense of smell in many of their stories. Baynard Kendrick’s Duncan MacLain even has an entire book about it – The Odor of Violets. Thornley Colton, the utterly forgotten American detective created by Clinton Stagg is has a good olfactory development too. I think the only way most readers know of him is through Christie’s parody “Blindman’s Bluff” that appears in Partners in Crime. The most unusual blind detective is yet another American — John Gaunt, created by prolific early 20th pulp magazine writer Isabel Ostrander. He has an ultrasensitive tactile talent. For example, he can tell the difference between shades of blond hair by feeling its varying textures!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I was intrigued by the term “alternative classic” and did a little searching on it just now. I didn’t find a lot of evidence, but what I did find looked complimentary: a less famous book that has merits comparable to more famous books, as featured in a listicle of “alternative classic novels.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Alternative classic” as used in the mystery field is a term coined by Bill Pronzini in his book “Gun in Cheek” that purports to be a survey of the worst writing in the genre, so it’s far from complimentary. Long/Laing but also Gladys Mitchell are among the authors Pronzini has fun with.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. …and without hesitation I would much rather read a book by Laing than by Gladys Mitchell.

    Funny you would say that. Back in 2008, Wildside Press reprinted Death Has a Will and, as you said, her work has some features of the Van Dine-Queen, but the plot and solution was (as far as I remember it) very Mitchell-like. And the reason why I would like to see her getting reprinted.

    If you don’t mind, I would like to put in my own request for your opinion on a mystery writer who got the short end of the stick during her short life and career, Harriette Ashbrook. She was a talented and innovative mystery writer, but the only who appreciate her today are John Norris and I. My recommendations are The Murder of Cecily Thane (very conventional, but good), Murder Makes Murder (one of her best with a shockingly original motive) or The Murder of Sigurd Sharon, which may have been the first to use a certain that since been run into the ground. Black Heath has reprinted all these titles as dirt cheap ebooks.

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    • What made the ending of Death Has a Will Mitchell-like? The only Mitchell link I can see is to do with the unorthodox sense of justice, but even so Laing doesn’t take it to Mitchell proportions.
      I’m not a fan of ebooks but I’ll keep an eye out for some reasonably priced Ashbrooke hard copies. I have actually read one of her books under the penname Susannah Shane. I know it’s not one of the ones you’ve listed but is The Purple Onion Mystery any good?

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      • Going by my dusty memories, the eccentric plot, choice of killer and psycho-analytic angle to the solution is what reminded me of Mitchell. I also recall she sloppily gave away the identity of the murderer too early with the second (or third?) murder. And that made the ending less impressive than it could have been.

        The Purple Onion Mystery is the last novel in Ashbrook’s Spike Tracy series and the only left on my pile, but it’s generally considered to be one of her weaker novels. Anthony Boucher usually praised her work with exception of the last books she published as either Ashbrook or Shane.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Since 2000, I have run a tribute website for Amelia Reynolds Long. I can tell you one reason why Long’s mystery novels have suffered a less than complimentary reputation. Anthony Boucher, editor, author, polymath, reviewed a good number of her books when they were published in the 1940s and 50s. These reviews are collected in Francis Nevins’ series of volumes, “The Boucher Chronicles.” Boucher was not a fan of Long’s mysteries, to say the least, and pretty much roundly criticized all her work in the mystery novel genre.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I’ve read many of Long’s books under her own name as well as Adrian Reynolds and she is definitely daffy in story ideas and plots. Her writing can be absolutely atrocious in her early books and it that facet prevented me from reading any more of the ARL books that I’ve accumulated over the years. Four Feet in the Grave, Murder by Scripture, Invitation to Death and The Shakespeare Murders are all entertaining in some ways but are ridiculous in plot and naive in characterization and include some egregiously awful sentences. I’m surprised that Stone Dead published in 1945 in the US is apparently so good. It comes right after Death Looks Down, her serial killer thriller about a murderer who borrowed his methods from Poe’s stories. That is only Long book I’ve read that was free of her quirky style and lunatic ideas. Maybe this is the novel that began her transitional period into more mature novels. But then there’s The Leprechaun Murders that came out in 1950 which was a throwback to her loony 1930s books. So I’m still skeptical. I’ve written about both extremes of her writing – the loony Leprechaun Murders and the pure puzzle Death Looks Down on my blog. The others I’ve read I couldn’t bring myself to write about without lambasting the poor woman.

    In an interview Long gave a few years before she died she confessed she loved Agatha Christie and wanted to emulate her. Probably because she began as a science fiction writer for pulp magazines (the kind where the science was really nothing more than imaginative fantasy) her first mysteries are more like works of fantasy too. Her plotting is unique and imaginative to be sure, but her ideas are borderline insane. Her grasp of human nature is naive and her character often behave less like people than archtetypes of murder mystery conventions.

    As “Laing” perhaps she finally settled down and started with more down to earth stories and freed herself of her love of fantasy and outrageous plots. Though the naive world view still seems present in the idea of expelling a s college student for “going AWOL”. I have three of the Patrick Laing books, including the very last one The Lady Is Dead (1951), but have not read them. I may have to investigate and compare them to the ARL books of the late 1930s to the mid 1940s.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Naturally I can’t comment on the books I haven’t read, but she seems to be on firmer ground when it comes to Stone Dead. The plot did not seem daffy and I felt the way the mystery puzzle strands all tie up well together. But it is interesting to hear about her earlier novels. Perhaps it did take her a while to discard her sci fi background.
      I probably should have explained that Corinne goes AWOL and according to an anonymous note she spent the weekend away with a man, (an element which connects to the central mystery). Now that probably was breaking some college rules and by itself would maybe seem like an expulsion by technicality. But the way it comes across in the book is that the faculty are using it as an excuse to get rid of her for all of the other stuff she has been involved in which they can’t prove.
      Maybe it is not completely plausible, but it is far less ridiculous than Innes’ The Daffodil Affair for example.
      Based on this read I would like to give her more of a go, though I appreciate she probably has some dud books in her canon.

      Liked by 1 person

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