Given how many Little mysteries I had on my TBR pile, I thought I best get cracking with reading some of them and have accordingly gone with the one which has been on the pile the longest. The Black Paw (1941) is the Littles’ fifth novel out of the 21 they wrote, and it is my 13th read from them. Perhaps when I have read them all I might write a ranked list or some kind of overall assessment. We’ll see… I have 8 more books to read by them first.
Just in case you’re not aware, some editions of their books have the penname Conyth Little, so reviews for their work on this blog have switched between the two.
Callie Drake is one of the Littles’ more spoilt heroines, though this dovetails well with the trials and tribulations that she will face. What are they you ask? Well Callie is secretly seeing a three-time divorced actor. He is terribly handsome, but also has an unfortunate habit of marrying rich women for their family money. Her parents are opposed to her seeing him, but she is aided by her friend Selma Barton in doing so. But this means Selma has her right where she wants her, and it just so happens she has a small favour to ask…
Selma is getting divorced from her husband, but he possesses letters which will jeopardise her alimony. Naturally Selma wants Callie to get them back for her. To do this she wants Callie to go undercover and take up the position of housemaid in Allan Barton’s house under the name of Ellen McTavish. If she can succeed Callie’s secret will not only be safe, but she will also get her hands on Selma’s roadster.
Callie thinks the worst that will befall her is a little bit of dusting. The reality is decidedly different, and it is a toss up for her, at least, as to whether the hard work is the worst thing to deal with or the murderer, who so happens to be on the loose within the Barton household.
The Black Paw has a strong comedic opening and quickly establishes for the reader what they can expect from it. The little bit spoilt and pampered Callie is unsurprisingly completely unprepared for the task that awaits her and is a grade A nincompoop when it comes to housework, dressing and acting the part of a servant, as well as rifling through Allan’s home inconspicuously. It comes as no surprise that she is soon found out. Not least because her idea of a servant’s outfit makes at least one other household member wonder why an extra from the Follies has turned up. Her run ins with the other servants are quite entertaining, with her backing up her inadequate way of doing things by saying she would always do it that way with Lord McNab, (her fictious previous Scottish employer).
Yet the first murder prevents any hasty departure on Callie’s part. The central murder is built up with several interesting elements. On all the calendars, when Callie first arrives, the 14th May is circled, yet the next day all the May sections have been torn off. The victim had also been waiting up every night until 2am for a month. Why? And why does his sister fear she will be the next to die?
Unfortunately, the mystery side of the book, however nicely set up, is not developed well as the plot unfolds. The primary difficulty is that there is very little on the page detective work occurs, despite there being two police officers on the scene. Callie overhears things from time to time, but she is not actively trying to solve the case.
Her attention is far more captivated by her own problems and how best to skimp on the housework and avoid the wrath of Allan. Although here we should note that there is an odd undertone of flirting, (he-man style), mixed in with their sharply worded exchanges. The Littles have written this type of romance before, but I’m not sure it is up to their usual standard.
The focus of the book is more on this comedy part of the plot, than the mystery, (which is not the case in other titles by the Littles). The black paw element that is mentioned in the title, is something of a token gesture. It is shoehorned into the book more firmly near the end, but if it was not there at all, it would make little difference to the final story.
On reflection I think there are sly clues embedded in the text which will give some indications of the “who” of the crime, but I doubt anyone will figure out the motive, which the reader needs to be told at the end of the story. The Saturday Review, on the 15th February 1941, in its Criminal Record section sums it up as ‘pretty silly’ and opines that the ‘exuberance of central figures and antics of various low comedy characters insufficiently atone for wanton bustling of rules and flimsy motives.’
I don’t think I would necessarily disagree with this, yet I found in the reading of it, it was indeed ridiculous, but it was a very fun kind of ridiculousness. It was a light breezy tale, which fitted my reading mood well, which is probably why the rating is not lower. This is not a book to be read for its mystery, but for those seeking comedy, there are a couple of hours of fun for you in this title.
The Bookshop Blog has also commented on this title here.