Death Over Her Shoulder (1939) by Dorothy Cole Meade

On a rainy night Nancy Reynolds arrives at the Semang rubber estate. She seems to be penniless and running away from some kind of trouble and she hopes to fall upon the charity and goodwill of Lydia Bosworth; a woman she met on the boat coming out to Malaya. However, when she gets there no one is home, (a Wayong is taking place), and the lights do not seem to be working. But things take a dramatic turn for the worse when she finds Lydia dead…

Then Lydia’s husband, as well as the estate assistant managers turn up and Nancy appropriately faints. On waking she is assumed to be another woman, a different friend of Lydia’s, and fearing for her position in this new and dangerous situation Nancy decides to play along with it. She tries to stick to the truth as much as possible, but some facts become obscured and replaced to fit in with her new identity. It does not take long for the local police to call in for additional support from Johor and Sergeant Ismael is dispatched. Naturally everyone is concealing something, though the initial police interview ends on a vitriolic note as one of the younger assistants, who has drunk too much, unleashes all kinds of snippets which would suggest good reasons for everyone wanting to bump of Lydia. The prime motive hinted at is Clive, Lydia’s husband, and Betty Harvey, who are apparently having an affair. Further murder, disappearances and reappearances ensue, and Ismael has a difficult job on his hands trying to solve this case, whilst compensating for his colleague’s deficiencies.

Overall Thoughts

This is my second read by this author and I am very glad I decided to follow up my first encounter with Meade’s work. This was her third and final mystery novel, and it is a shame that she stopped when she did. Further practice may well have helped her hone her craft further and I felt this later piece was very promising. Unlike in her debut novel, witness/suspect information is not over-repeated, and she avoids using the trope of the witness who hints at knowing who the killer is, but refuses to share this information, and is therefore unceremoniously murdered. Without this trope gumming up the investigative works, I felt the plot was driven by different factors.

However, like the first novel, Fatal Shadows, Meade commences her last book on another Eberhart and Rinehart note, though this time we have a female protagonist in jeopardy taking centre stage. Yet once more this initial note of suspense fiction does not swamp the style or plotting of the narrative and instead Meade gives us a much more conflicting female lead. I have to admit I did not warm to Nancy, who is no sweet innocent heroine. We don’t know how much we can trust her, given her suspicious past, and aside from her mental jibes towards the others, we also get this damning statement about her at the end of chapter three:

‘It wasn’t until after the second murder that Nancy realized how wrong she had been in every decision she had made that night, that if she had told the whole truth to the officer, Lydia’s murderer would have been exposed and two lives would have been saved.’

Does anyone else find it hard to be endeared to a protagonist when they act in this sort of way? Thankfully it is not long until Ismael makes an appearance and then the readers have a definite character to root for.

The narrative swaps between seeing events from Nancy’s point of view, which gives us a more unguarded look at the suspects’ thoughts and feelings, and Ismael’s investigation, which shows us events from a different perspective. Ismael’s work quickly reveals other potential murder motives and I enjoyed how Ismael takes the lead in this case. Though he still has to cope with rectifying or responding to other colleague’s errors:

‘Having put a constable in charge, he had made the mistake of assuming that the man would do his job—he had been used to the trained co-operation of a corps of conscientious helpers in Johore, and the stupidity of the local police here handicapped him at every turn. There was so much to do, and he was fast realizing that none of the duties could be relegated to anyone else.’

In this book and in the first story, there is a sense that Ismael’s competence is hindered or held back by the actions of others, which enable the killer’s plans to progress and force Ismael into playing catch up as more bodies appear. Nevertheless, Ismael’s reputation precedes him, and the local police are very deferential and see him as someone they can learn from. Though of course some of the suspects are far from complimentary about him.

In both stories by Meade, that I have read, the author includes a ruthless killer who is very opportunistic when it comes to secondary killings, reacting in the moment to preserve their secret. The cases in each story also take place within a two-day time period, which keeps the pace quick. This last tale also shows Meade continuing to use her setting effectively. The crimes which take place are rooted within their location; the setting is not just an exotic add on, and I think she captured the rubber estate cast of characters well. They did not come across as a generic country house party, the tensions and style of socialising is different in a subtle way.

Both Fatal Shadows and Death Over Her Shoulder are available in a single reprint by Coachwhip Publications and the second title is by far my favourite.

Rating: 4.25/5

Source: Review Copy (Coachwhip Publications)

4 comments

  1. A bit off topic but I saw this page and was struck by how many of these you have reviewed — Ames, Rice, etc. although the collection has a Noir tilt to it. Some nice covers!

    Liked by 1 person

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