I first tried Disney’s work back in 2017 with the highly enjoyable Family Skeleton (1949). Lack of availability left me waiting until March this year to try my second book by her: Room for Murder (1955). Unfortunately, I found this one to be less good. However, I recently acquired eight books by her – it’s all Xavier’s fault! To avoid having back to back reviews by Disney, in the autumn, I thought I best read one straight away to help spread them out. I was unsure which title to try first, so in the end I went for the title which intrigued me the most. I wasn’t sure what it meant, but the book’s alternative name Death by Computer, although less engaging, did give me a better sense of the opening theme for the story. Under the first name though a TV film was made of the book in 1971. Helen Hayes, Myrna Loy, Mildred Natwick, Sylvia Sidney, John Beradino and Vince Edwards were in the cast.
The book opens at a ladies bridge club meeting. Much alcohol has been consumed and they decide it would be hilarious to create a fake profile for a computer dating agency and see what responses come rolling in. Naturally their fictitious woman, Rebecca Meade, is much younger than themselves, good looking and intelligent. Since Sophie Tate is the only single lady in the group, she puts her address down, though she does not give her phone number.
A month later and a list of 7 men are sent through and some even send letters. One of these is by Malcolm Weston. His epistle sounds fairly dull with his business-like tone. Yet he is swung into centre frame when the narrative switches to him reacting badly when a girl rejects his advances. Violent, self-centred, vindictive, he is not a man you would want to meet even on a bright sunny afternoon, let alone a dark night. Yet unfortunately he has become obsessed with a certain Rebecca Meade…
Receiving no reply to his letter he does the normal thing of stalking the address given, and instantly begins to formulate a picture of what this Rebecca is like. He wants her, but he presumes she has rejected him due to her class snobbery; a thought which generates an inappropriate amount of anger on his part. Attraction degenerates into revenge. Yet Sophie is completely oblivious to all of this and when their paths cross her desire to keep the joke going pushes her ever closer to danger. But will curiosity be her undoing?
Disney delivers a very good opening, with the computer dating premise being convincingly depicted. It was particularly fun to look at the discussion the women have around how their fake female would answer certain questions on the questionnaire, as well as their reactions to letters received. From a psychological point of view this is very well done, and it leaves the narrative open in a tantalising way. You know something is going to go horribly wrong, but you can’t figure out how just yet.
These opening chapters also show Disney competently updating her work culturally, yet I liked how her female protagonist is a woman in her 50s, rather than a young 20-something heroine. Suffice to say these women are not prim and proper and Sophie’s maid in particular has many complaints to make about her unladylike behaviour:
‘The list of Clara’s complaints was long. Sophie Tate’s voice was too loud, her language coarse and profane. She dyed her hair instead of letting it turn an honest gray like Clara’s. She smoked too much. She hardly ever went to church, took up no worthy causes, did nothing a born lady should except for the hours she spent gardening. But even that was not turned to good use.’
Disney is happy to have a respectable older woman recovering from a hangover, in a way I don’t think Christie would be.
Sophie’s choices are far from sensible and some aren’t even that kind, yet I think Disney enables her to not be wholly unsympathetic by ensuring that the man being messed around with is far more unpleasant than her. We get frequent access to his internal monologue and from this he reminds me of the anti-heroes that Patricia Highsmith created. The type of man who is interested in using others, is very sensitive to criticism and is keen to exonerate any bad behaviour on his part.
Up until halfway I think the narrative works well and is reasonably engaging, even if the plot is a little simple. However, once a decisive action occurs at this mid-way point the story goes downhill a bit. The character psychology remains effective, yet the plotting sadly does not. Disney throws in a “twist,” yet if anything I think that does the novel more harm than good and unfortunately leads to the book’s non-ending. I genuinely thought my book must be missing a few more pages, (it wasn’t as it had adverts afterwards). The level of inconclusiveness this denouement provides makes the ending of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest look positively all wrapped up and neat and tidy with no loose ends. Now some books can use an open ending effectively, such as Harriet Rutland’s Blue Murder (1942), yet I think simple plots like Disney’s need a proper ending, preferably one with a bit of kick, in the Berkeley or Brand vein.
So this was a bit disappointing, especially given the unusual premise, which leads to something I have not come across before in classic crime fiction. I am not giving up on Disney yet though I am hoping my next read will be closer in merit to Family Skeleton. On that note I think I am going to try one of the earlier books in my pile, (pictures of which can be seen in the sidebar on the right.)