Dead Center (1942) by Mary Collins

This was one of those I’ve-never-heard-of-this-random-author-but-it’s-a-good-price-so-I-will-give-it-a-go purchases. That and a bantam book edition is always hard to resist. It also included this delightful map/image inside.

Synopsis

‘It seemed impossible for Keith to create the proper mood for writing at her home, so she moved into 706 Montgomery Street, San Francisco. A shabby old building, it was tenanted by writers and artists, many of whom lived there not from choice but because it was only kind of place they could afford. Though they teased Keith about being a rich man’s daughter, they grew to understand and respect her. In the spite of the large number of temperamental people who lived in the building, 706 Montgomery was a nice place to be; nice, that is, until that fateful day when Keith discovered the horribly mutilated body of one of her new friends.’

Overall Thoughts

Janet Keith is our rich protagonist and narrator, who has decided to rent a room in a not very salubrious part of town as apparently such a space is more conducive for writing. Yet this does leave her as a partial outsider to the building, as she does not live there. At the beginning she is the building’s confidante, though even here we see her ability to alienate others and as the book progresses I would say she becomes less close to those in the building. Her wealth places a bubble of protection around her when the police swoop in, something the others very much notice and begin to resent as she stirs things up.

The opening pages introduce us to the core characters well and we quickly see where the tensions lie and how many of them find their origins in Anne Ehman; who has left her husband and decided to live with one of the artists at 706 Montgomery. Unlike what the book blurb says, Janet is by no means a friend of Anne, new or otherwise, and it is not surprising after a party where Anne gets up everyone’s nose, that she is found dead the next morning by Janet.

The beginning of the case presents an interesting mystery for the reader with a number of hot suspects and I felt the material was there to create an engaging puzzle. However, this is not what transpires in the book itself. Never have I read a book where the protagonist has been so redundant. If Janet was removed from the plot the case would have been solved anyways. Lieutenant Casey is sufficiently competent to handle the case without the inconveniencing actions of Janet. Her approach to sleuthing is fairly ad-hoc and is rather reactive. She gains little information at great expense and Casey invariably already knows what she has found out. Her background as a spoilt rich kid does not aid her sleuthing abilities and she is somewhat preoccupied at times with her new fiancé – though you do sometimes wonder what John Fitzgerald sees in her. The final third of the story in particular seems far more interested in her relationship with him than with the murders.

I would be surprised if anyone figured out who did the deed – Janet only realises after they nearly kill her. This was Mary Collins’ second mystery novel, but it does not seem like she is all that adept at using the tropes of the genre successfully. I don’t know if her later books show an improvement in this area, but in the main I would suggest Collins prefers a more heroine-in-jeopardy style.

Rating: 3.5/5

10 comments

    • Yes and the police investigation is very much in the background so we never know how Casey latched on to the correct culprit himself – unlike Janet he didn’t need to get nearly killed to figure it out!

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  1. I enjoyed this, but with the same reservations about the lack of a proper mystery plot. Janet is intelligent and self-aware–she really should have played a bigger role in solving the crime. The setting of a kind of bohemian artists’ collective is interesting, however, as are the class issues that arise.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This was one of the first Bantam editions I ever got (long ago in the mists of time)–I read it then, but couldn’t have told you a thing about the plot. I’ve since picked up three more of hers: Only the Good; Dog Eat Dog; and Death Warmed Over. But, as with so many books I simply must have because I find them, I haven’t gotten round to them yet.

    Liked by 1 person

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