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.
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.